Pierpont Morgan's Palace of Culture in Mid-Manhattan Rare Books, Relics, Letters, and Illuminated Manuscripts Share Space in the Lavishly Appointed Morgan Library

Article excerpt

`DON'T worry about perfection. You'll never make it," Salvador Dali is reported to have said once. Fortunately, the financier John Pierpont Morgan never heard such a warning. In building his library, he aimed for perfection.

Morgan (1837-1913) was a mogul of the Gilded Age, so wealthy that he raised $25 million in one afternoon during the panic of 1907 to stave off a run on the banks. More than a banker, he fancied himself a custodian of culture.

Around the turn of the century, this lifelong Anglophile began to assemble a gentleman's library designed to bring the best of European civilization to American shores. He bought in bulk, shipping to New York boatloads of porcelain, objets d'art, and medieval manuscripts.

To house these collections, Morgan built a sumptuous Italian Renaissance palazzo on the corner of Madison and East 36th Street. To furnish it, he imported marble columns from a French chateau, a coffered ceiling from Florence, and stained glass from Swiss monasteries.

This treasure house - the repository of documents and objects that reflect the pinnacle of Western culture - is both a research library and a museum open to the public. A visit to the Pierpont Morgan Library is like browsing through the top monuments of Western Civ. 101.

First, there's the building itself. Several period rooms dating from 1906 are perfectly preserved. The entrance rotunda, with its multicolored marble, alabaster, lapis lazuli columns and ceiling paintings modeled on Raphael's designs for the Vatican, is a robber baron's dream of High Renaissance splendor.

The library contains an extraordinary collection of early rare books and manuscripts, including three Gutenberg Bibles from 1455. Superb medieval manuscripts, inscribed and decorated by hand, are also exhibited.

It's obvious why the manuscripts are called illuminated, for the lavish miniatures in jewel-bright colors and gold leaf seem irradiated with light.

In the rotating display of music manuscripts, one might see scrawled notes from a Beethoven string quartet, while in the literary manuscripts, Martin Luther writes to convince a friend of predestination in 1531. On a secular note, the collection contains Napoleon's love letters to Josephine and Galileo's announcement of his discovery of sunspots.

Morgan's study remains virtually as it was when he relaxed there to smoke and play solitaire. The array of objects reveals the diversity of his interests. …


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