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Art review: The Invention of the Renaissance at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

12 April 2024

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition about the birth of the Renaissance

© BnF, département des Manuscrits

Lombard Illuminator (Maître B. F.), Equistrian Portrait of Muzio Attendolo Sforza, in the Life of Muzio Attendolo Sforza, Antonio Minuti (Milan,1491). More photos below and in the gallery

Lombard Illuminator (Maître B. F.), Equistrian Portrait of Muzio Attendolo Sforza, in the Life of Muzio Attendolo Sforza, Antonio Minuti (Milan,1491)....

IN EUROPE, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is second only in size to the British Library. It, too, is a national library of deposit, and has been since 1547, when Francis I decreed that all books published in France should be automatically sent there.

More recently, it had outgrown its traditional home in the heart of Paris just behind the Palais Royal, where it is housed in two mansion hotels that had belonged to Cardinal Mazarin in the time of Louis XIV. This exhibition of some 240 works is staged in the 1645 Galerie Mansart, which was originally a sculpture gallery added to link those buildings.

The exhibition ambitiously sets out to study the development of humanism in Western Europe, which we now call the Renaissance, with the recovery of Greco- Latin culture and an exploration of their civilisations.

To do this, it brings together illuminated manuscripts, early printed books, sculpture, prints, drawings, and objets de virtu, concentrating on Rome, Venice, and Florence between the 14th and 16th centuries, spanning the years before the resurgence of Christianity and of papal power.

The first section concentrates on the studiolo, the inner private cabinet in which persons of quality and distinction (“Les puissants”, as Jean-Marc Chatelain and Gennaro Toscano have it) might read and recreate in private scholarship.

The year 1333 proved to be a turning point, when Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) found a long-lost manuscript copy of Cicero’s Pro Archia Poeta in a Northern European library, setting in train a search for other lost classical works and the rise in classical scholarship and translation.

© BnF, Réserve des livres rares 33Greek New Testament, binding in lemon morocco with the arms of Henry II, decorated with gilded scrolls and enhanced with paint, from the workshop de Gomar Estienne, Paris (c.1550)  

The archaeological quest for evidence of Greek and Roman civilisation, especially in Rome, would become no less intense. It was in Rome, in 1347, that Cola di Rienzo sought to establish a republic on the model of ancient Rome, a bid for power which was equally doomed. A hundred years later, we see what Rome itself looked like in a marginal drawing for the poem Il Dittamo de Fazio degli Uberti, published in Milan.

Equally surprising is the almost rural view that we see of the city on the Arno in the copy of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia commissioned by Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Calabria (1448-95), which clearly shows the house of the Florentine Vespasiano da Bisticci, “king of the world’s booksellers”, as a contemporary called him.

The last section shows the gradual transformation of private collections of prestige into princely public libraries. Louis XIII is properly regarded as the founder of the national library, as he acquired the collections of the Milanese Sforza family to add to his own library at Blois. Much later, Louis XIV’s finance minister Jean-Baptise Colbert transferred all the books to his house on the Rue de Vivienne, where it opened to the public nine years after his death, in 1692.

The most memorable image among the remarkably rich and varied treasures here is the equestrian portrait (1491) of the condottiero, the mercenary soldier of fortune Muzio Attendolo Sforza. Its design closely follows Leonardo da Vinci’s intended statue of his son, Francesco Sforza, many of whose books are here.


“The Invention of the Renaissance: The Humanist, the Prince, and the Artist” is at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 5, Rue Vivienne 75002, Paris, until 16 June.

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