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July 31, 1995

Exhibition of the Treasures of the Bibliotheque Nationale Opens at the Library of Congress

An exhibition of the treasures of one of the world's great libraries, the Bibliotheque nationale de France, will open at the Library of Congress on September 8, 1995. The exhibition, entitled "Creating French Culture," will explore the central role of culture in the development of the French nation. The exhibition will be held in the recently renovated Southwest Gallery and Pavilion of the Thomas Jefferson Building, a splendid setting for the more than 200 rare manuscripts, books, maps and other objects that will be on display. Most of these treasures have never before been exhibited outside of France.

The exhibition will be on display in the Thomas Jefferson Building through December 31. The West Front doors of the Jefferson Building, at 10 First Street S.E., will be open for the duration of the exhibition. Special hours for the exhibition are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The exhibition, which will be open on Sundays through the generous support of private donors, will be closed on federal holidays. The Jefferson Building, still under phased renovation, will be open to the public in its entirety in the spring of 1997.

Tickets are required to enter the exhibition. Same-day passes, free of charge, will be available at the Library outside the exhibition space. Advance tickets are available, for a handling/mailing charge, from TicketMaster. For ticket information call (202) 432-SEAT; outside the Washington metropolitan area, call (800) 551-SEAT.

Criteria for Selection of Objects

Selections for the exhibition have been made using three criteria. The first is the uniqueness and beauty of the works, such as the magnificently illuminated manuscripts made for French sovereigns or their powerful ecclesiastical and aristocratic advisers.

The second criterion is the historic significance and inaccessibility of the objects. The exhibition will include, for example, the first book printed in France, the Epistolarum Liber of 1470; a copy of Moliere's Don Juan from 1682, before the text was censored; Stendhal's annotated copy of the Memoirs of Saint Simon; and Marie Antoinette's own copy of the Constitution of the Thirteen United States of America.

The third criterion is the intellectual importance of the works, even though the objects may not be beautiful or rare. These items include Montesquieu's L'esprit des lois, Diderot's Le Reve de d'Alembert, Flaubert's Education sentimentale, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and de Gaulle's Memoires de guerre.

The Middle Ages

"Creating French Culture" will be divided into four broad chronological periods, beginning with the Middle Ages. Starting with the Carolingian period, whose leaders drew on cultural resources to legitimize and embellish their power, the exhibition progresses through the period of invasions, when monasteries, such as those of the Benedictine order centered in Cluny, became the refuge for culture and learning. Then, in the 12th century "renaissance," authority began to pass decisively from monastic centers, generally located in the countryside, to cities and the royal court. This period culminates with the invention of movable type, which significantly broadened and secularized the cultural base. Some highlights of this section:

  • The Lothar Gospels. One of the most ornate Carolingian manuscripts to have survived, it dates from the ninth century, when it was produced by the monastery of Saint Martin on the order of the Emperor Lothar, grandson of Charlemagne. It opens with a magnificent painted portrait of the emperor.
  • The Comedies of Terence. This manuscript also dates from the second half of the ninth century and is a precious witness to the transmission of classical Roman culture in the West. Its excellent illustrations are inspired by the style of Roman painting.
  • Psalter of Jean de Berry. The duke of Berry was a great bibliophile and his name is associated with some of the most beautiful illuminated creations from the end of the Middle Ages. This one was commissioned around 1386-1390 and represents the work of several artists.
  • Equestrian Armorial of the Golden Fleece. With 79 full- page equestrian portraits that embody the zenith of the chivalric ideal, this manuscript dates from the middle of the 15th century. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, founded this chivalric order in 1431 for the purpose of liberating the Holy Land.

The Renaissance

The second period covers the Renaissance and the early 17th century. The new humanistic culture came to France from Italy during the reign of Francis I, in the early part of the 16th century. This culturally rich and prosperous period was marked by numerous religious and civil wars. It also coincided with the age of exploration. Highlights from this section will include:

  • Letter from Suleiman the Magnificent to Francis I in 1536. In this letter Suleiman accepts the establishment of a permanent French embassy at Constantinople. This document not only celebrates the early years of the alliance of the French monarchy with the Ottoman sultans, it also reflects the expanding horizons of the European world during the Renaissance.
  • The Epistles of Ovid (translated into French). This volume was executed for Louise de Savoie, mother of Francis I, in the beginning of the 16th century. The work was a great success in its time. The illustrated volume consists of letters that the Latin poet fictitiously attributed to heroines of antiquity pining for their lost or faraway loves.
  • Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais. This is the only known copy of the first edition, printed in 1531-32 under the pseudonym Alcofrybas Nasier. The work "celebrates wine, love and mortal pleasures" but "is also permeated with the enthusiasm of the humanists of the time." It was almost immediately denounced by the Faculty of Theology, and in the exhibition copy, all the "coarse" passages were inked out.
  • World Map in the shape of a heart by Oronce Fine. This map was printed in 1534-36 and shows the newly discovered lands of America. The work reflects the new interest in geography as a science, prompted by the rediscovery of the ancient Greek text of Ptolemy and the explosion of geographical discovery.

Louis XIV - French Revolution

The third section begins with Louis XIV and the court of Versailles, which epitomized royal absolutism and the monarchy's control over culture. A time of great cultural and intellectual output, this period ends with the French Revolution. Highlights from this period include:

  • One volume from The Campaigns of Louis XIV. These splendid records of the campaigns of Louis XIV were presented to the King for his pleasure. They contain a series of military maps and magnificent illuminations, including a portrait of the sovereign in the guise of a Roman emperor.
  • Map of the Main Rivers of Europe. This book is a digest of a work by Guillaume de Lisle. It was written and printed by Louis XV when he was eight years old, just a few years after his accession to the throne in 1715. He later gave this copy to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour.
  • Sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The two sonatas for harpsichord and violin (Kchel 6 and 7) in this edition, the first published in Paris by Mozart when he was seven years old, are dedicated to one of Louis XV's daughters, who was a fine harpsichord player.
  • Marie Antoinette's copy of the French-language edition of the Constitution of the Thirteen United States of America. Published in 1783 at the behest of Benjamin Franklin, who believed the document would hasten the recognition of this new Republic. He sent a copy to each member of the French royal family.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

The last section covers the 19th and 20th centuries. Highlights include:

  • Code Napoleon. Napoleon's own copy of the civil code, promulgated in 1807. Because the French Revolution swept away the existing legal structure, one of Napoleon's first projects was to complete the work of legal unification that had been started under the assemblies.
  • "J'accuse." The autograph manuscript of Emile Zola's impassioned letter to President Felix Faure in defense of alleged traitor Alfred Dreyfus, for which he was sued by the government. The letter was published on the front page of the newspaper Aurore on January 13, 1898, and provoked a public furor, which eventually led to a re-examination of the case and the ultimate exoneration of Dreyfus, who had been falsely accused of treason.
  • At the Foot of Sinai by Georges Clemenceau. This book consists of a collection of Jewish stories written at the time that Clemenceau was involved in the defense of both Dreyfus and Zola. It is also a very unusual and precious livre d'artiste with illustrations by Toulouse-Lautrec and an art-nouveau binding by Marius-Michel.

The 20th century was indelibly marked not only by the two world wars but also by tremendous intellectual ferment. This last section includes:

  • *A la recherche du temps perdu, Sodome et Gomorrhe. The autograph manuscript of a section of Marcel Proust's masterpiece.
  • Resistance: Official Bulletin of the Committee for Public Safety. Number 1, December 15, 1940. Five issues of this newsletter were published and served to galvanize the Resistance movement. They were printed on an old mimeograph machine "borrowed" from the Musee de l'Homme. Most of the principal participants were soon arrested and shot on Mont Valerien, a hill outside Paris.
  • War Memoirs: Unity by Charles de Gaulle. The handwritten manuscript of the last draft of the third and final volume, completed in 1955, in which De Gaulle describes his overriding determination to preserve French sovereignty from the designs of foe and friend alike, including his opposition to American plans for post-war France.
  • Elegy on Martin Luther King by Leopold Sedar Senghor. The autograph manuscript of this moving tribute, written in 1976. Senghor, who was president of Senegal, and a great poet of "negritude," felt a close affinity to Martin Luther King Jr.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a handsomely illustrated catalog published by Yale University Press in association with the Library of Congress and the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The volume will include essays by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and three other experts from the Bibliotheque nationale and four American scholars, including Orest Ranum of Johns Hopkins and Peter Gay of Yale. In addition, there will be descriptions of each of 207 objects in the exhibition, contributed by 50 curators from the Bibliotheque nationale de France. As with other major exhibitions at the Library of Congress, an electronic version of "Creating French Culture" will be digitized and available on the Internet when the exhibition opens.

This is the second in a series of exhibitions on the great libraries and written traditions of the world, initiated by the Library of Congress. It is made possible by grants from the Florence Gould Foundation, Worms and Company, Cogema, and a number of generous individual sponsors.

The Bibliotheque Nationale

The Bibliotheque Nationale, located in central Paris, is a major research and conservation library. Its origins date back to the Middle Ages, when the kings started developing and expanding their private collections. Charles V was the first to formalize the Bibliotheque Royale by installing the library in a tower of the Louvre in 1368. Another milestone was the edict of Montpellier, enacted under Francis I in the beginning of the 16th century and soon after the invention of movable type, which required that a copy of any work printed in France be deposited in the Royal Library. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Royal Library was transformed into the Bibliotheque de la Nation, and its collections were considerably expanded with material confiscated from the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocracy.

In 1994, the Bibliotheque Nationale merged with the new Bibliotheque de France to become the Bibliotheque nationale de France, thus undergoing another historic transformation. An immense new facility is being constructed on the banks of the Seine River in the eastern section of Paris, which will incorporate, along with all the printed collections (10 million books, 350,000 periodicals), the new and developing technologies of communication. Remaining in the facility of the Rue de Richelieu will be the departments of manuscripts, prints, cartography, music, theater, coins and medals.

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PR 95-051
ISSN 0731-3527

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