When the director Alain Resnais roamed and filmed through the old National Library in Paris for his documentary "All Memory of the World", his black and white images appear as if he were moving through dark dungeons, stuffed with wooden boxes and stacks of books, dusty paper far and wide , from the floor to the vaulted basement ceiling.
"In Paris, words were imprisoned in the National Library," says an off-screen voice as the camera pans along the seemingly endless shelves of leather-bound works. It's 1956, and Resnais claims, "Because people are afraid of words, they lock them up."
In the Rue de Richelieu, the historic seat of the Paris National Library, all that remains of the old word dungeon is the beautiful shell: openness, transparency, light and accessibility were the motto when the old Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or BnF for short, was renovated reopened last weekend after twelve years of construction work.
The general overhaul of the historic building complex, into which the court library of Franz I moved in 1721, cost 261 million euros. In 1537, he introduced the rule of dépôt légal, which meant that a mandatory copy of all printed matter had to be submitted to the court library.
A lot has changed in this 58,000 square meter book castle in the heart of the city, not far from the Seine, between the Louvre and the Garnier Opera. The visitor no longer enters the house from rue Richelieu, but from rue Vivienne, where landscapers, artists and architects have created a garden of almost 2000 square meters of palm trees and plants traditionally used to make paper. You could imagine yourself in Nice.
The old staircase of honor has disappeared, replaced by a spiral staircase made of steel and painted aluminum, which had caused bitter protests from monument conservators years ago. The end result is convincing: the architects Bruno Gaudin and Virginie Brégal transformed the overwhelming entrance into a light lobby and shortened the paths in the building patchwork with a glass walkway.
The main task of the two architects was to create unity and logical, short paths in an "architectural palimpsest of five centuries," as Gennaro Toscano puts it, the enthusiastic curator of cultural heritage and collections at the affiliated art history center Ecole des chartes. "We are giving back a palace and a park to Parisians and all visitors," said Toscano.
But above all, there is talk of two small revolutions in Paris: From now on, the legendary oval reading room is no longer just open to researchers, but to everyone. The 18 meter high hall from the late 19th century has been carefully dusted and modernized, the original shelves and reading tables have been preserved.
20,000 works are in the open access area, including 9,000 comics, mostly manga, making the Salle Ovale the largest manga collection outside of Japan. A corpus of 2000 works represents French literature, a further 9000 books cover history, art history and the history of the house itself.
The signal that the line sends out is unmistakable. Manager Laurence Engel said at the opening that they wanted to “resolutely open up to a broad audience”. Obviously, they not only want to attract a new, young audience, but also create a kind of attraction for sporadic visitors. Readers who are looking for books in a very specific way or who want to browse more broadly will quickly reach their limits here.
For art historians, the stunning Labrouste Room is now available all to yourself. In the oval reading room for the public, the focus is on “mediation”, as the buzzword goes, meaning the transfer of knowledge and culture. With the help of screens, you can immerse yourself in the history of the house or browse through an archive of digital art.
However, the 128 reading places will not be able to satisfy a mass rush. If you want to read here in the historic ambience, you will probably have to get up early or have to queue for a long time.
The general public is also to be attracted by a newly created museum. Some of the most beautiful halls have been turned into exhibition spaces where visitors can get a glimpse of the fabulous collection. France's kings maintained what can be called a museum library - an oversized cabinet of curiosities. And have steadily enriched their collection over the centuries.
Of the more than 40 million books, documents and objects that both houses of the BnF have, about half are located on Rue Richelieu, the other half, all printed matter, are kept in the four book towers of the new house inaugurated by François Mitterrand in 1998.
The twenty million pieces from the parent company are manuscripts, maps, city plans, drawings, prints, photographs, coins, medals, jewellery, antique treasures, even theater costumes, a "worldwide unique, encyclopedic cultural heritage", as the BnF boss puts it formulated angel.
Under the theme "Treasures" ("Trésors"), the first exhibition shows some of the most valuable printed or manuscript copies of the collection: one of the twelve volumes of the Gutenberg Bible, the sheet music of "Don Giovanni", which Mozart wrote quickly on the music paper when he was just 30 appears to have thrown the manuscript of Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris, Casanova's biography, Roland Barthe's Fragments of a Language of Love.
Apart from these treasures, which for conservation reasons have to be replaced by other objects after three or four months, one can marvel at the chess pieces of Charlemagne, some of which weigh a kilo, made of ivory, a gift from the Caliph of Baghdad, as well as Dagobert's throne, a Pure gold bowl (2nd century BC) or the first globe on which the American continent is inscribed.
Everything is shown in the Galerie Mazarin, whose restored, baroque ceiling paintings are unique in Paris. The powerful Jules Mazarin, who ruled until the young Louis XIV came to power in 1661, had an additional wing built for one of the city palaces on Rue Richelieu.
Mazarin would have liked to have Pierre de Cortone for the ceiling paintings, but he was already busy with the ceiling of the Roman Palazzo Barberini. One of his students, Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, therefore took over Paris. Mazarin's nephew later painted over the intimate zones of the nude scenes inspired by Ovid's “Metamorphoses” with so-called chastity veils. The restorers uncovered the breasts and buttocks again, but preserved specimens of the veil for historical reasons.
While the opening of the old building is being celebrated with great pomp, librarians at the BnF have announced a warning strike following massive job cuts. Scientists and students are also protesting against shorter opening times in the other house, where books can only be ordered for consultation three and a half hours a day.
"The old house now has a fancy facade behind which they will show beautiful things and attract many visitors, but all at the expense of the very function of a library," protests a trade unionist. The writer Laurent Binet laments the "Disneylandisation" of the Paris National Library.
The Rue Richelieu is certainly no longer a book dungeon. But, says Binet, the venerable house has become a "sight".