Tucked away in Murray Hill, on the corner of 36th Street and Madison Avenue, is one of the greatest library spaces in the world. What makes this particular library space so remarkable? To start, it was built for one man and his personal collection of books. John Pierpont—better-known as J.P.—Morgan. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
At the turn of the 19th century, John Pierpont Morgan was one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the world. He had formed J.P. Morgan and Company as well as General Electric, controlled 1/6th of America’s rail lines, and bought out Andrew Carnegie to form the United States Steel Corporation—the first billion-dollar company in the world. In addition, he became an avid collector of books, manuscripts, and art. He purchased everything from ancient near eastern cylinder seals (the collection remains one of the best in the world), to an ancient Roman Running Eros statue rescued from the ash of Boscoreale, to illuminated medieval manuscripts, to a plaster cast of George Washington’s face, not to mention books upon books upon books.
It soon became apparent that this collection had outgrown Morgan’s family brownstone on 36th and Madison and he contracted Charles McKim of the famous architectural firm McKim, Meade, and White to build him a library in which to house it. 1.2 million dollars later (about 31.5 million dollars today), a library of pink Tennessee marble, fit to hold the treasures inside it, stood adjacent to his home.
And there it stands today. What fascinates me about the Morgan Library is how much a knowledge of the Classics can enrich a visit to this 19th century tycoon’s personal collection. Inside and out, the Morgan Library abounds in Classical references. Upon entering the building in 1906, one would have entered the Rotunda, which bears unmistakable resemblance to the Pantheon (built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of the first emperor Augustus) in Rome. Like the Pantheon, the floor and walls of Morgan’s round entrance hall are covered in marble and other fine stones, from deep purple porphyry to antico giallo yellow marble, and the domed ceiling contains an oculus-like skylight. One section of the dome, all done by Henry Siddons Mowbray, is filled with scenes from classical mythology; while three lunettes opposite guide the viewer through the history of Western literature. The lunette depicting “antiquity” features Calliope, muse of poetry, flanked by Homer (epic Greek bard of the Iliad and the Odyssey) and Orpheus, legendary Greek musician, poet, and prophet. We see classical antiquity echoed in the two other lunettes as well: the “Middle Ages” includes Vergil, the first century poet who accompanies Dante throughout his Divine Comedy; and the “Renaissance” features the poet Petrarch, whose discovery of Cicero’s letters in the 14th century contributed to the start of the Renaissance itself.
The library proper is also a sight to behold, a place where lucky New Yorkers like ourselves can go and contemplate priceless manuscripts and works of art surrounded by three tiers of inlaid walnut bookshelves filled with books of every shape and size imaginable. Gazing down at visitors from the ceiling are mosaics of men who influenced Western civilization through the ages, from Homer to Michelangelo to William Caxton (the first man to introduce a printing press to England). Over a formidable fireplace hangs a massive 16th century tapestry from the Netherlands. It depicts the vice of avarice (greed) and is one in a collection of seven that depict the seven deadly sins. Classical subjects are woven into three cautionary tales on the tapestry. On the left, a haggard female personification of avarice digs her hands into a treasure chest of gold. On horseback in the center rides King Midas, who foolishly wished that everything he touched would turn to gold and, as a result, dies of starvation (this is accordingly to Aristotle, although there are many other versions). On the right is Pygmalion, the sculptor who, Ovid writes, falls in love with his own sculpture.
Why so many classical references? It is the choice to include such classical decoration that I find so interesting: What does the personal library of the then most powerful man in the world look like? Is it in the most modern style? As sleek and cutting-edge as the railroads being built across the country at that time? No. The power of this patron of the arts is shown through referencing the classical tradition. And when you think about it, what better way for a rising man from an emerging nation to display his wealth and prowess than through the symbols and stories of men and civilizations of power in the past? A knowledge of these stories of men and civilizations not only enriches your understanding of one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, but also how those in power can use history and mythology to portray themselves in a certain light. Make your way down to Murray Hill and check it out for yourself!