How does a fabulously rich man house his books?

I have often gushed over the lavish libraries of the United States, but what I saw on my most recent visit was a positive temple to the arts. An exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings took me to the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue in New York City. It was bone-chilling weather, so I rushed into the building without admiring the exterior as I would otherwise have done. Once I had taken in the drawings and wandered through exhibits on Edgar Allan Poe and Booker Prize winners, I ventured to explore the rest of the building. In a corner of the airy entrance courtyard was a modest door that pointed me to Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 Library, the kernel of the institution.

John Pierpont Morgan was a financial giant of the late 1800s, and as the new century was born he commissioned a library to house his rich collection of books, manuscripts, prints and drawings. A portrait of the man looms over the fireplace of his private study. His tooled-leather desk stands there, and his privileged visitors perhaps sank into those sumptuous armchairs and sofas as they perused a volume. The walls are covered in red damask silk, and the ceilings are of carved and painted wood. The books are locked behind glass and grille cases along the walls, and medieval icons and Renaissance paintings are displayed above them. In one corner is the entrance to a vault containing rare manuscripts and editions. It is now left open for visitors to peer into, though we cannot enter. A thick Persian carpet hushes our footsteps.

From there the visitor slips into the Rotunda, a pillared extravagance of bronze, marble and mosaic with allegorical paintings on its domed ceiling. A copy of the Declaration of Independence is displayed here, one of the hand-written copies dating from 1776. The Rotunda leads to the main library, dominated by a Citizen Kane fireplace, tapestries and a coffered ceiling. When J.P. Morgan decided to do up his interiors, he evidently shopped in European castles. There are three levels of inlaid walnut wood bookcases in this room, the upper levels reached by narrow galleries. There’s no visible way to get up there, but the guide tells us there is a secret staircase behind one of the bookcases. A private tunnel, she says, leads to what was once Morgan’s own residence.

We can’t look into the cloth- or leather-bound books from those shelves, of course. For the 20 dollars I paid to get in, I expect only to see, not to touch. But many treasures are displayed in glass cases, including Mesopotamian cylindrical seals, books in jewelled bindings, and a letter dictated by Elizabeth I to her cousin Henry III of France and rendered by a secretary in exquisite Gothic script.

Morgan’s library has three Gutenberg bibles, but that seems like nothing after what we’ve seen. No doubt there’s another princely American banker somewhere who has four, and when I find him I’ll gush some more.

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