Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliothèque Nationale Richelieu
A unicorn horn isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect to see in a museum, much less a museum attached to a library. Nonetheless, it’s one of the many peculiar treasures you’ll find at the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Museum of Coins, Medals and Antiquities. This is a strange museum. It feels, when I walk in, as if it’s a place where time has stopped.
This is the oldest museum in France, started by Henri IV as the ‘Cabinet du Roi,’ a place for kings to display their treasures. I’d recommend visiting before things change; this Bibliothèque Nationale’s Richelieu site is undergoing an extensive refurbishment for the next five years and the future of this museum is uncertain. It may be closed completely. Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to remain the quietly magical place you’ll find at the moment.
The Entrance to the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliothèque Nationale. Photo Author's Own.
Some pieces may seem a touch grotesque to 21st century eyes, like the antlers of a deer carved with depictions of the hunt. These were carved in Germany in the 17th century and mounted; they’re from the collection of Louis XIV and have been in the museum since 1797.
Louis XIV and Louis XV seem to have been quite the collectors and the items they were given or chose to keep provide insight into the interests of their eras. There are painted medallions of all the popes up to Clement XII, over 200 faces. Most antiquities are Greek or Roman, though there are some Egyptian pieces. A small slip of paper in one of the cases tells me that the first Egyptian objects were given to Louis XV by the Comte de Caylus between 1752 and 1765, though most such items entered the museum’s collections in the 19th century and were subsequently deposited in the Louvre in 1907.
The four rooms are crowded with cameos. There’s a small sardonyx carving of an angry bull from 100 AD – 100 BC. There are bracelets and rings with tiny portraits and mythological figures. The head of Minerva is carved in bright blue lapis-lazuli.
Ivory, too, is everywhere. Aside from the Unicorn Horn (actually from a Narwhal, for those a bit suspicious of the unicorn’s existence), there are countless carved elephant tusks and an interesting consular diptych carved in Constantinople in 525. Most fascinating, though are the collection of sixteen ceremonial ivory chess pieces originally from the Abbey of Saint Denis. Originally thought to be Carolingian, legend had it that the Emperor of Baghdad had given them to Charlemagne as a coronation present. The pieces are, in fact, from the 11th century and made in Italy, though they’re made no less impressive by the later provenance.
Ascending to the second level of the museum, one finds the dated eighties display cabinets sitting underneath a gilded ceiling. It’s quite a contrast. The items inside the display cabinets remain fantastic. There are roman dice, beautiful early twentieth century Bulgarian plates and an enameled copper cup depicting Noah’s ark, with all its animals, made by Jean de Court at Limoges in the 16th century. There are also French coins from the 6th to 20th centuries; having first visited France after the euro came into place, I was quite excited to see a fifty franc coin.
It’s primarily the display that makes these objects so fascinating. The cabinets seem outdated, but they’re not fussy and you can look at objects closely. Looking at the pieces inside them I felt a real sense of wonder that the 21st century, with all its computer simulations and online photographs, often numbs. These pieces aren’t accompanied even, really, by much context. They’re just intriguing, astonishing pieces with their subject, material, date and place written on a slip of paper beside them. This might be why they fuel the imagination: items aren’t cushioned in explanations but are simply mysterious objects from other times and visitors are left to marvel at the craftsmanship.
The reason that this free museum is so quiet is the shortage in resources; there isn’t much budget for publicizing even temporary exhibitions. The exhibition spaces have already been cut; I was a bit disappointed not to see the Salon Louis XV, painted by Boucher, Natoire and Van Loo. There’s currently a petition to save the museum from being closed. For the moment it’s open every afternoon and is captivating.