Have you ever heard of the Richelieu Library? If not, prepare to learn about the most epic library (and its museum upstairs) – and then add them both to the top of your to-do list.
The podcast episode
In this episode, we visit the Richelieu Library and explore the breathtaking Oval Room and the jaw-dropping Mazarin Gallery. Listen to The Earful Tower podcast here:
The history of the Richelieu Library
The Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or the BnF for short, has two main sites: the historical Richelieu location which was established in the 16th century and the modern François-Mitterrand site, opened in 1995 in the 13th arrondissement. We’re focusing on the Richelieu site in this post.
The Richelieu wing is huge – it takes up an entire block in the second arrondissement of Paris. The buildings comprising the Richelieu wing have a rich history spanning centuries, and passing through various owners. In the 19th century, the site was consolidated to form the National Library of France. Inside is a treasure trove of libraries, museums and galleries, which house more than 22 million objects and documents.
This location underwent a 261 million euro renovation ($256 million) over the course of 12 years and only reopened to the public in September 2022. Hat tip to New York Times writer Elaine Sciolino (a friend of The Earful), who was at the library for its grand reopening, and who wrote about it in wonderful detail – read her article here.
Our visit this week focused on the Oval Room and the museum upstairs, especially the Mazarin Gallery.
The Oval Room in the Richelieu Library
The Salle Ovale is a magnificent room located within the Richelieu wing of the National Library of France. It was once reserved for scholars and students and is now entirely open to the public for free. The library was designed by Jean-Louis Pascal and his successor Alfred Recoura. The Oval Room has more than 20,000 volumes and a surprisingly a large collection of comic books.
It certainly is, however, difficult to focus and keep your nose in a book when your surroundings are this spectacular. There are mosaics as far as the eye can see and the room is bathed in an incredible light thanks to the enormous glass ceiling.
The Mazarin Gallery
This Baroque gallery has to be one of the best rooms in all of France. It’s just one of the rooms in the upstairs museum, and it is pure magic.
This gallery, constructed in the 17th century, has a frescoed vault akin to Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors. In fact, it was made even before the Palace of Versailles.
The restorers made some particularly fascinating discoveries while working on these ceiling paintings from 1646. Most notably, they removed the “modesty veils” from many of the figures, whose dignity had been preserved in touch-ups a few years after the originals were made. In other words, many of the figures are now topless once again.
The gallery itself is huge at 45 meters long (150 feet), 8m wide, and 9m high, and the gilded walls house an invaluable collection of historical French artefacts.
The centre point of the room is one of the Coronelli globes – the first to use the word “America.” You can read more on the globes here from when we visited the large versions at the library’s sister site.
There is the throne belonging to King Dagobert from the Middle Ages, next to Charlemagne’s ivory chess pieces.
Further down the hall Mozart’s handwritten score of “Don Giovanni” and some of Émile Zola’s original manuscripts (you’re even able to see his corrections and adjustments!)
The museum includes several other rooms, featuring treasures worth of the Louvre Museum. For a deep insight, be sure to get the free app “BNF Richelieu” which explains many of the main pieces in English. Speaking of main pieces, check out this 8th century Grecian helmet and armour of an Italian warrior from 300BC.
The museum upstairs features several other rooms, including the Louis XV room (pictured below). This was one of the rooms that had a mega facelift in the renovation, those wooden panels had turned green with age and have been restored to their former glory.
In the Column room you can find the collections of all the kinds of France since Louis XXI. Coins, medals, jewellery, and some of it positively ancient. Tip: See if you can find the origin stories of how various pieces went from ancient Rome to the collections of the kings. Also: Some objects have fascinating stories: The golden hook on the right, below, was once used for hooking capes to the shoulders of Roman soldiers.
Address: 58 Rue de Richelieu, 75002 Paris
Hours: 10am – 7pm Tuesday – Friday, 2pm – 7pm Monday, Saturday 10am – 6pm, Sunday closed. Refer to their website for details.
Cost: 10€ for the Gallery Mazarin and free for the Salle Ovale
Metro: Bourse, Line 3
To eat: Rose Bakery has a tea room on site, so you can fill up on cinnamon rolls and coffee before exploring the library.
The Earful Tower podcast episode
Here’s The Earful Tower’s podcast episode again in case you missed it, with new episodes every Monday. The next one will be all about “S is for…”. You’ll have to tune in next week to find out what it is.
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