For my month in Paris, I spend my mornings attending French class and my afternoons at the Bibliotheque nationale de France. They house their manuscripts at the Richelieu Library, and the Salle de Lecture is in a part of the building known as the Galerie Mazarine, build in the mid 1600s.
The Galerie Mazarine is one of those long, Baroque galleries you see in movies about Louis XIV and the like. It has many high windows along one side, each topped by a golden scallop. The other side, parallel with the windows, are false windows, painted with pastoral scenes. The majority of these are hidden behind shelves of books and a modern wall that dwell here now, the use of les lecteurs at the Richelieu.
Many long tables cross the floor of the Galerie for les lecteurs, with a counter a little over midway along the Galerie. It is at one of these long tables I sat yesterday and today, beneath a crystal chandelier. The candles are equipped with lightbulbs, but the chandelier is now also fitted out with other incandescent lights that point straight down from the midst of the crystals; the candle-bulbs are off. Most of the room’s lighting, however, comes not from the chandeliers but from the modern world’s ubiquitous fluorescent tubes.
Of course, it is not the chandeliers or windows, or even the false windows — lovely though they be — that make this room. It is the ornate, Baroque ceiling above it all, above the gold-and-white moulding. Painted on this ceiling, separated one from another by golden Baroque ornament, are many images of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Straight ahead from seats 23 (yesterday’s) and 22 (today’s), above the entrance, are Romulus and Remus being found by their adoptive shepherd parents as the she-wolf suckles them.
Off to my left was an image of the Achaeans taking the Trojan women to their ships. The right — pretty much straight above my head — in one of the larger painted panels was Aeneas escaping Troy, Anchises on his back. Creusa stands behind, weeping. That must be her ghost.
With such a ceiling as this, the Galerie Mazarine could easily be the most beautiful library workspace I have used, were it not for the modern encumbrances such walls with modern books and lights up above that block the view of the Galerie.
But it is a very beautiful salle de lecture, and I am happy to be spending a month working with manuscripts in it!