The reading room of the Bibliothèque Mazarine

Libraries Are My Temples

This essay about the legacy of Cardinal Mazarin, which includes several libraries, is included in my book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about reading or traveling with intention.

Libraries Are My Temples

A view of the Institut de France across the Pont des Arts, one of my favorite libraries in Paris. Image copyright Valery Yurasov.
A view of the Institut de France across the Pont des Arts, one of my favorite libraries in Paris. Image copyright Valery Yurasov.

Libraries are my temples, the places I go to worship my tribe. The desire to record, to put words down as a way to cement thought, to unfurl storytelling are the liturgical acts that compose a writing life when it simply cannot be resisted, and many of them begin when a book is slid from a shelf. Though my fascination with the written word began in a humble library in a country elementary school, I have visited some magnificent repositories of books since I fought to escape the intellectually bankrupt childhood I was dealt. I make it a point to seek out libraries when I visit a city because I see it as a privilege to peruse their collections.

A detail of a drawing of the Collège des Quartre Nations viewed from across the Seine created by Israel Silvestre in 1670
A detail of a drawing of the Collège des Quartre Nations viewed from across the Seine created by Israel Silvestre in 1670, which contains Bibliotheque Mazarine, one of Paris’ great libraries. Image, courtesy of Département des Arts Graphiques, Musée de Louvre, © RMN, Paris.

During a recent trip to Paris, I visited two beautiful shrines to knowledge that house some of history’s greatest intellectual outpourings. Both of these had Cardinal Jules Mazarin to thank for their existence and each has an evocative past lurking behind the façades. One is a gorgeous example of Louis Le Vau’s Baroque architecture that houses the Institut de France, completed in 1670. The curved wings of this elegant building, set along the Seine, extend from a domed temple to gracefully arc toward the Louvre across the river. Its past is fascinating because it was meant to act as a smokescreen for the massive wealth this unscrupulous cardinal had amassed by unethical means. 

The Institut de France across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Nitot.
The Institut de France across the Pont des Arts from the Louvre. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Nitot.

The building was bequeathed by Mazarin in a codicil to his will just three days before he died. One of the wealthiest men during the ancien régime by the time he knew he was on his way out, he stipulated that the building would house a university named the Collège des Quatre-Nations, this donation the move he hoped would shift attention away from the fact that he’d gained such a substantial fortune by dishonest means. I ducked inside the door of the building one brisk January morning to visit the reading room, known as the Bibliotheque Mazarine, excited to see the books and furnishings in it because the décor and many of the titles shelved there once belonged to this cunning man.

The stairs leading up to the reading room of the Bibliotheque Mazarine, one of Paris’ historical libraries, are worn by an until number of footfalls. Image © Saxon Henry.
The stairs leading up to the reading room of the Bibliotheque Mazarine, one of Paris’ historical libraries, are worn by an until number of footfalls. Image © Saxon Henry.

As I made my way up the circular staircase, I noticed how nearly 350 years of footfalls had worn the subtlest of impressions into the steps just beneath the handrail, the indentions like delicately formed lips that trickling water would find impossible to resist. I thought about how ironic it is that Mazarin’s slippers were not among the soles that had caressed the surface of the stone treads as I ascended them. Just then, I looked toward the light streaming in through a window and his bust peered at me with vacant eyes. The effigy of his librarian Gabriel Naudé stood stiffly nearby, his stare just as eerily empty.

Busts of Cardinal Jules Mazarin by Louis Lerambert, left, and of Gabriel Naudé by Raymond Gayrard, right. Image © Saxon Henry.
Busts of Cardinal Jules Mazarin by Louis Lerambert, left, and of Gabriel Naudé by Raymond Gayrard, right. Image © Saxon Henry.

Naudé was the Cardinal’s hitman for scoring literary treasures, the effort taking him to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, and Holland between 1642 and 1653 to collect manuscripts, sometimes purchasing them and sometimes pillaging entire libraries. The Cardinal’s was the largest private library in Paris when Mazarin died, containing nearly 38,000 volumes; and it would become the largest public library of seventeenth-century Europe when it was transferred to this building, the collection outnumbering the Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome at the time. 

The reading room of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Marie-Lan Nguyen.
The reading room of the Bibliothèque Mazarine. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Marie-Lan Nguyen.

When I entered the reading room, the loveliness of the interior hit me strongly, as French Classical design of that era always does. Unlike the façade and other spaces, the library did not spring from Le Vau’s spatial genius because the room was a reinstallation of Mazarin’s personal library from his private palace. This was specified in the Cardinal’s will, which stated that the tables, chairs, and bookshelves be installed exactly as they had existed in Palais Mazarin, and that the books and manuscripts be organized as they had been before. The room has since been outfitted to make it amenable to a large number of students, of course, but the aesthetics make it clear that the contents had belonged to a wealthy person of power whose coat of arms festoons the bookcases.

Carved coat of arms of Cardinal Mazarin on a bookcase at one of Paris' Baroque libraries
Carved coat of arms of Cardinal Mazarin on a bookcase. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Marie-Lan Nguyen.

I took a seat and watched as students and scholars concentrated, bent over books as they absorbed knowledge that may have been out of reach had the Cardinal not insisted the library be open to everyone regardless of standing or wealth. The titles on the shelves were collected during two different periods as his influence grew, ebbed, and grew again. His first spate of power came when he was made the de facto first minister and key advisor to the queen regent, Anne of Austria, when Louis XIII died in 1643 and Louis XIV was too young to take the throne.

Portrait of Cardinal Jules Mazarin by Pierre Mignard.
Portrait of Cardinal Jules Mazarin by Pierre Mignard.

This stint in the limelight followed on the heels of another debauched Cardinal named Richelieu. During Richelieu’s tenure, dissatisfaction had merely simmered; the discontent would turn into a full-on boil that ushered in a civil war once Mazarin and the Queen began conspiring to decrease the power held by the aristocracy. As the civil war escalated, called the Fronde, the Cardinal became a particular target for the bluebloods. His palace and libraries were looted, and he was forced to flee Paris. Thousands of books were burned, lost, or sold but Naudé managed to hide the most valuable volumes in his apartment. Surviving a lengthy exile, Mazarin reentered Paris on February 3, 1653, and made quick work of rebuilding his fortune and his library.

A view down the stairwell on the way to the reading room of the Bibliotheque Mazarine. Image © Saxon Henry.
A view down the stairwell on the way to the reading room of the Bibliotheque Mazarine. Image © Saxon Henry.

Naudé retrieved as many of the Cardinal’s books as he could find and built the second of his two libraries, which is included in the collection lining the walls in the reading room. Mazarin quickly recouped his fortune by skimming tax revenues and other royal funds he administered; setting high interest rates on personal loans to the crown; and taking payoffs from bankers, petitioners, and office seekers. Hilary Ballon describes just how loaded he was in her book Louis Le Vau: Mazarin’s Collège, Colbert’s Revenge: “Mazarin’s fortune had no equal throughout the history of the Old Regime, which is all the more astonishing because he amassed most of his riches in only nine years—between 1653, when he returned to France after the Fronde, and his death in 1661.”

Facade of the Bibliothèque Mazarine within the Palace of the Institut de France.
Facade of the Bibliothèque Mazarine within the Palace of the Institut de France. Image courtesy WikiMedia and Marie-Lan Nguyen.

On March 3, 1661, Mazarin knew his days were numbered so he set his final scheming in motion in a series of moves to try and hide his fraudulence. First, he offered the King his estate so that no questions would be asked about how large it was. When Louis XIV refused, Mazarin put a clause in his will that his possessions were not to be inventoried. Though the King was smart enough to ignore this request, the man he chose to perform the task was Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Mazarin’s personal lieutenant, whom the Cardinal had instructed to create an incomplete listing of his wealth. As an advance tactic that he hoped would appease the King, Mazarin gave the royal family a selection of his paintings and tapestries, and the pick of his furniture. He also gifted them a treasure trove of jewels that included the sixty-carat Grand Sancy and the thirty-carat Miroir du Portugal diamonds, the largest stones in Europe at the time.

A portrait of Cardinal Mazarin in his palace, which held one of his remarkable libraries, in 1659 by Robert Nanteuil.
A portrait of Cardinal Mazarin in his palace in 1659 by Robert Nanteuil.

Then, ever the sly dog, Mazarin crafted the language of the will to claim he had amassed his wealth in order to ensure there were funds on hand should he need to rescue Louis XIV financially! “The king was hard pressed to refute Mazarin’s account, and by virtue of a posthumous gift [the Collège des Quatre-Nations], the cardinal was able to reshape his image for posterity,” Ballon wrote. But the grandiosity of his possessions, the richness of his coffers, and the size of the bequest that funded the Collège des Quatre-Nations did call attention to the massive wealth the institution was meant to defuse, which is why his claim that he had hoarded money in case he needed to rescue the king was so brilliant. Though this spared the Cardinal’s reputation in the short term, his story proves that it is impossible for a crook to know whether he’ll be found out in the end as long as historians refuse to gloss over mafioso behavior.

The dome rising on the front façade of the Institut de France that holds one of the libraries Mazarin amassed.
The dome rising on the front façade of the Institut de France. Image © Saxon Henry.

As I left the building and walked back across the Seine, I was thankful that the weather had grown sunnier because the wind was rushing around the plexiglass panels that protect the Pont des Arts from love locks so insistently the pieces of plastic whistled shrilly. The keening sent shivers up my spine, the eerie sound creating a sinister music that seemed fitting as I looked back at the lovely building from the opposite bank and saluted Le Vau. I say this because Colbert wrongly accused the architect of embezzlement in order to escalate a personal feud between them, a persecution that bankrupted Le Vau. The man who created some of the world’s most renowned French architecture was penniless and deep in debt when he died in 1670. Fortunately, buildings like the Institut de France exist to bear witness to the talents of this great aesthete, a legacy that can never be taken from him. 

Walking across the Pont des Arts, away from the Institut de France toward the Louvre. Image © Saxon Henry.
Walking across the Pont des Arts, away from the Institut de France toward the Louvre. Image © Saxon Henry.

The evolution of the other library I mentioned in my opening was not accomplished by a single architect but by an impressive list of them. The building was at one time Cardinal Mazarin’s home, a grand hôtel particulier known as the Palais Mazarin when it was his residence. It now houses the Bibliotheque Richelieu-Louvois that was created after Mazarin’s passing when his library was moved to the college. Louis XIV decreed that the royal collection, which had outgrown its rooms in the Palais du Louvre, be transferred to Palais Mazarin. Since then, the collection in this particular library has grown to over 600,000 items, which include an early encyclopedic compilation of 200,000 rare and precious books, and 2,370 incunabula. Among the incunabula is a Gutenberg Bible printed in Mainz in 1455.

The entry to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu-Louvois Library, one of the most sumptuous libraries in France.
The entry to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu-Louvois Library, which was once Palais Mazarin. Image courtesy of WikiMedia and Chabe01.

The evolution of the other library I mentioned in my opening was accomplished by an impressive list of architects. The building was at one time the Cardinal’s home, a grand hôtel particulier known as the Palais Mazarin when it was his residence. It now houses the Bibliotheque Richelieu-Louvois that originally held Mazarin’s collection of books when he was alive. Since his death, the collection has grown to over 600,000 items in this particular library, which includes an early encyclopedic compilation of 200,000 rare and precious books, and 2,370 incunabula. Among the incunabula is a Gutenberg Bible printed in Mainz in 1455. The foundation of the collection within the remarkable building was made up of the books from the royal collection that had outgrown their rooms in the Palais du Louvre, moved there by Louis XIV after the cardinal’s death.

The oval room of the Bibliotheque Richelieu-Louvois, one of the most gorgeous libraries in Paris
The oval room of the Bibliotheque Richelieu-Louvois, designed by architects Jean-Louis Pascal and Alfred Recoura, that is housed within the former palace of Cardinal Mazarin. Image courtesy Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

In 1932, a glorious setting for the books was designed within the Palais Mazarin by architects Jean-Louis Pascal and Alfred Recoura. It’s called the Oval Room. I highly recommend a visit to this library and to the reading room in the Collège des Quatre-Nations, two of the numerous locales that now make up the library system in Paris filled with approximately 40 million items. There is simply nothing like perusing historically significant books surrounded by these ornate interiors because it’s as if you are being transported back in time. If you plan to visit the Institut de France, I would suggest reading Ballon’s book, as it sheds light on the architecture and the story of Mazarin’s and Colbert’s scheming. She brings the building to life, comparing it to a starlet in a clinging gown that captures your attention and draws you toward it. It certainly drew me in on that cold January day, and knowing the history of the building deepened the experience as I marveled at the dishonesty it was meant to conceal.

Libraries Are my Temples © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. This essay is included in my latest book The Modern SalonnièreSaxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose other books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns.

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4 Replies to “Libraries Are My Temples”

  1. What a great story of intrigue, wileyness and greed, though for literary treasures I can offer a mea culpa to Le Vau. Thanks for writing this as I had no idea of the story behind these libraries, nor knew of them.
    My fascination with libraries of old are how beautifully they are designed and the often accompanying soaring ceilings! I gaze raptly and the turn of the circular stairs, al the wood details and lines of books to discover.
    Rather startling to find out he was wealthier than the KING!
    Wiley for sure with that excuse, and surely the king appreciated that and saw through it. As kings back then always needed money to fuel their wars and appetite for wine, abundance of food, women, song, fine fabrics, etc.
    And yet, he somehow dies penniless?

  2. Finding all the quirky facts behind things is one of my favorite things to do, Heather, so I’m so happy you appreciated the piece. When I was editing the essays for the book en masse, I was quite surprised at how almost all of them had architecture and interior design elements to them. When you’re like we are – so immersed in it all the time – I guess it can’t help but fuel our point of view, eh? Thanks for taking the time to read my work and, especially, for commenting. I love seeing your avatar pop up in my world!

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