The best little museum in Paris

Paris is a city of museums and galleries — the Louvre, d’Orsay, l’Orangerie, Cluny, la Crypte archéologique beneath Notre Dame, Carnavalet, Marmotan Monet, du quai Branly, Rodin, Invalides, Centre Georges Pompidou, and so forth. Last Saturday I visited what I think may be the best little museum here (and it’s free!!), the Bibliotheque nationale de France’s (BnF) collection of ‘Monnaies, médailles et antiques’ — coins, medallions, and … antiquities?

Now, you may think a museum that bills itself as a coin museum would be pretty lame. If you think thus, you’re clearly not that into numismatics and haven’t visited the Museum on the Mound in Edinburgh. I have two things to say to you — 1. coins can be cool; 2. this museum isn’t only coins. It’s not even mostly coins. Or medallions. Mostly, antiques (antiquities??).

At heart, this little two-floor museum is the BnF’s collection of the above items, on display for the public to view for free, no library card necessary!! (I have such a library card, but that’s beside the point.) It’s in the old library site, ‘Site Richelieu’, 5 Rue Vivienne, through the right entrance, and then up the big, marble staircase.

I went expecting a bunch of small but awesome items, and I wasn’t disappointed.

By small, I mean that the largest item, besides a headless statue torso, was a Mesopotamian stele with cuneiform on it — about three feet high. And a few statue heads. And a beautiful Persian sword. But most of the artefacts were small and most of the space was devoted to these small objects.

The first small items I enjoyed seeing were Early Modern, including a medallion from some French King or other (they’re all Louis or Charles, anyway), and cameos of Reine Elizabeth Iere d’Angleterre and Olivier Cromwell. Didn’t expect those – certainly not the latter!

Elisabeth Iere, Reine d'AngleterreThose were not the most exciting cameos, mind you. Throughout the museum, I found a wondrous array of cameos of Roman emperors and family as well as of mythological figures. This was excellent. I could have played ‘Guess the Roman Emperor’ (extolled by me here) if I’d wanted. I didn’t, but I still delighted in them, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Trajan, (amongst others) and a family portrait including, of all people, Geta!*

A cabinet of cameosHere’s the cameo with Caracalla and Geta:

Caracalla and Geta!The best cameo was this one of Augustus (the mounting is Early Modern):

Beautiful Cameo of AugustusI loved the cameos, I really did. But we should move on. Because there was other amazing stuff.

Like the throne of the Merovingian King Dagobert I (603-639). If it’s not his, it is at least seventh-century from the right part of the world.

Not my photo; my photo is blurry.

Or an eleventh-century ivory chess set, called ‘Charlemagne’s chess set.’

Mediaeval chessman

Mediaeval chess!Or a large number of consular diptychs, such as this one:

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

 And the other ivory diptychs, to boot.

Mid-14th-century diptych

Gothic diptych from the mid-1300s

There was also a variety of other Late Antique stuff, including things from the fifth century, such as these medallions of the Emperor Honorius (r. Western Empire 395-423) and his sister, Galla Placidia (392-450; mother of Valentinian III):

Medallions of Honorius and Galla PlacidiaThis pleases me greatly, given that sometimes those centuries (the fifth in particular) feel a bit neglected in the world of museums. But not here. There were grave goods from the Merovingian King Childeric (d. 481)!

Sword hilt of Childeric

Childeric’s sword hilt

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Decorations from the Sheath of Childeric

Oh, and some coins.

Coin of Valentinian III

Coin of Valentinian III (r. Western Empire 423-455)

Coin of Theodosius II

Coin of Theodosius II (r. Eastern Empire 408-450)

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last Roman Emperor

Coins from Romulus Augustulus, last western Roman Emperor (deposed 476)

I recommend you visit if you’re ever in Paris, take in small objects, including Mesopotamian, Pharaonic Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Late Antique, Early Mediaeval, Central Mediaeval, and Early Modern ones. Small, beautiful, delicately-carved exquisite objects populate the two small floors of this museum. Worth seeing.

*Who is Geta? Geta is a short-lived emperor of the late-second/early-third century, brother to the Emperor Caracalla who had his younger brother executed and then pronounced a damnatio memoriae on the poor fellow. As a result, few portraits survive (although there is one in the Louvre), and there is a famous painting where Geta’s head has been blotted out:

A happy family

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