During quarantine, I’ve found online exhibitions to be particularly inspirational. Classical culture continues to remind me that history and tradition are long and fortifying. Art imbued with beauty and righteousness has always carried humanity through the most trying times.
One such online exhibition is The Morgan Library & Museum’s “Explore J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library.” It illustrates the museum’s legacy through archival photography expounded upon with audios punctuated by recorded snippets by experts, some of whom are related to those who built the museum.
The museum’s founder, American financier Pierpont Morgan, understood that his rare collection of books and manuscripts needed a home of equal significance and beauty. In 1903, when his literary collection had outgrown his townhouse on Madison Avenue, he built The Morgan Library & Museum on a parcel of land adjacent to his home.
“The East Room is one of the great library spaces in the world,” says John Bidwell, who is the Astor curator of printed books and bindings. “This was one person’s personal library, which is astonishing.”
Stacked in the East Room are three tiers of bookcases filled with early Gutenberg Bibles (the earliest printed, non-handwritten editions), classics of French and American literature, and first editions of Copernicus and Galileo, among others.
Originally, only one tier had been planned, but Morgan’s collection grew as the building was being constructed over four years. Many prized works are also kept in the West Room’s solid steel vault.
“I don’t think anybody complains that Morgan had too many books, because that meant he got to build more of these bookcases, [which] are just incredibly beautiful,” says architect Samuel White.
Samuel White is the grandson of Stanford White, a partner in the architectural firm of Charles McKim, the architect of the museum. White highlights that the bookcases have Renaissance motifs in a light-colored wood inlaid into a darker wood base. “Every detail has been thought out to make this whole interior sing.” bookcases have Renaissance motifs inlaid in a light-colored wood into a darker wood base.
For the Morgan, the treasures aren’t just the rare books and manuscripts showcased inside. The museum’s architecture and decorative design invite the Golden Age into modern-day Manhattan. The building was created in the style of a grand Renaissance villa worthy of one of the Medicis.
The Classics Live On
Architect Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909) designed the Morgan in the American Renaissance style, adapting elements of the Italian Renaissance for an American setting. The chosen exterior stone, for example, is Tennessee pink marble, which can be seen in many famous American landmarks, including the United States Capitol. The builder set the Morgan’s marble blocks with such precision that almost no mortar was used.
As you walk past the two stone lionesses, through the recessed portico, and enter the museum, you feel like you’re stepping back in time to the Italian Renaissance.
The beauty of the Rotunda reaches from the floor to the ceiling. Mosaic tiles adorn the walls between marble pilasters. Alabaster bowls rest on freestanding marble columns. Deep blue columns and a blue and white Renaissance relief frame the small door.
Looking upward, the semicircular apse is adorned with blue and white stucco reliefs depicting Roman mythology, inspired by Raphael’s design for the Villa Madama in Rome. American artist Henry Siddons Mowbray also took inspiration from Renaissance artists Raphael and Pinturicchio for his ceiling paintings.
The Rotunda’s ceiling paintings reflect the composition of Raphael’s early 16th-century vault decorations for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, commissioned by Pope Julius II, another great patron of the arts.
“It takes us on a tour through Western thought, mythology, and literature,” the audio guide explains. The ceiling designs include the three epochs included in the museum: the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. “Although Mowbray made the ceiling paintings in a studio and later mounted them in the space, these reliefs were modeled on-site so that Mowbray could study the way they interacted with the ambient light.”
White explains: “The entrance is a combination of [the] monochromatic and colorful, and that’s quite deliberate. The mosaics are light gray, and they’re very close to the color of the marble in the pilasters that surround them. But what all this is doing is it’s setting up for Morgan’s treasures to really stand out.”
In addition to the treasure trove of beautiful books and architecture, the Morgan also hosts valuable paintings and sculptures, such as “Madonna and Saints Adoring the Christ Child” by Pietro Vannucci (circa 1500) and the wooden altar figure “Saint Elizabeth Holding a Book” (circa 1500). Antonio Rossellino’s bust of the Christ Child is one such work that especially deepens your visit to the museum.
“Rossellino’s Christ Child is free from imperfections. A perfect exterior was meant to suggest a similarly unblemished moral character within. These busts were in fact intended to inspire growing boys as they developed into morally upstanding men,” the audio narrator states.
Classical culture can uplift us all, of any age. Now that New York life is opening up again, I can’t wait to experience these cultural gems in person at the Morgan.
To take the Morgan Library & Museum online visual and audio tour, visit TheMorgan.org
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.