In the heart of Paris lies a treasure trove of precious books and cultural artefacts known as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France – Richelieu. The royal library complex, once reserved for scholars and researchers, is now accessible to the general public who can visit its magnificently restored reading rooms, garden and brand new museum.
The site is a stone’s throw from the Palais Royal and the Comédie-Française theatre, all once belonging to Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), close advisor and foreign secretary to King Louis XIII.
A patron of the arts, Richelieu was also the founder of the Académie Française for the protection of the French language.
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) has over 40 million documents across four sites, the main ones being BnF François-Mitterrand on the left bank of the Seine for printed works and audiovisual documents, and the Richelieu branch for “specialist” collections – manuscripts, drawings, antiques and precious items.
Founded in 1771, the BnF Richelieu library was originally housed in the Mazarin gallery, designed by the royal architect François Mansart. Its Baroque ceiling is adorned with frescoes painted in 1647 by Italian artist Giovan-Francesco Romanelli, listed as a heritage monument.
Since 2010, some 12,000 hours of work were needed for the thirty artisans to restore the painting, stucco and gilding. A handful of specialists were sent from Florence to complete the painstaking work alongside French experts.
The site, made up of several buildings dating from the 16th century, was restored in two major stages, over a 12-year period, and cost over €160 million. The first stage opened in 2016, and the second, on 20 September 2022.
Other rooms have been also carefully restored, notably the Louis XV room with its 18th century paintings by Boucher and Van Loo. The Barthelemy room, entirely wood panneled, built in the 19th century holds collections of medals and coins.
isitors will no doubt be impressed by the Oval Room, with its 18-metre-high ceilings, designed in the late 19thcentury by Jean-Louis Pascal.
Some 20,000 works are available for consultation here, including 9,000 comic books, a way of enticing younger readers and families. Tactile screens have been added to enable the public to explore the library’s collections in a fun, creative way.
A new staircase was added during the renovations to join the Oval Room on the ground floor to the museum on the upper floor. Designed by architects Bruno Gaudin and Virginie Brégal, its smooth aluminium surface gives an eyecatching modern twist to the lobby area.
The museum itself, presented in several rooms, holds 900 pieces from antiques to royal items and articles from the present day, organised by theme and rotated every few months.
Among the exhibits, rare items include the Great Cameo of France, Dagobert’s throne and Charlemagne’s chess set. Manuscripts such as the “Psalter of Saint Louis”, Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris”, and a score by Mozart can be seen alongside prints by artists from Rembrandt to Picasso.
Entering the modern era
The Gutenberg bible is one of the star pieces of the collection, according to the library’s scientific and artistic advisor Gennaro Toscano.
“It’s the first bible to be printed in Europe, so it represented a kind of revolution” in the literary world, he told the media.
The other revolution is that, after many years of being reserved for scholars and specialists, the library and museum have “reached a milestone,” making their collections available to ordinary visitors, even on Sundays.
The era of dusty, cloistered rooms for grey scholars is over, and families with children are more than welcome.
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France also hosts temporary exhibitions, such as one on “Molière: a game of true and false” from 27 September to 15 January 2023, and “Degas in Black and White” 30 May to 3 September 2023.