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Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Prosser Gifford and Marie-Helene Tesniere, eds. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (in association with the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris), 1995.248 pls + 5 maps + xl + 480 pp. $65. ISBN: 0-3000-6283-4.

A tour de force, Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is the catalogue produced in concert with an exhibition - one in a series at the Library of Congress intended to celebrate the holdings of the great libraries of the world - held in the Fall of 1995. The timing of the exhibition was well planned to announce to the United States the creation of the new Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF), the last in the series of President Francois Mitterand's Grands Travaux. These huge and costly monuments built in Paris during the last decade were conceived by the now-deceased Mitterand as a way to visually emphasize his mark on the city in particular and the country overall. This grand building scheme has added one more chapter to the relationship between power and culture throughout the history of France, and it is just this theme - the propagandistic potential of art and literature - that weaves together the components of the exhibition catalogue.

Indeed, the catalogue is like an intricate tapestry freely woven in a richly detailed and colorful design of essays and catalogue entries. Following a lengthy and detailed chronology which juxtaposes salient political and cultural events from the beginning of the reign of Clovis in 481 to the end of Mitterand's presidency in 1995, the body of the catalogue is organized into four sections, dividing into quarters the span of centuries from the start of Charlemagne's rule in 768 through the present day. Each section includes a thematic essay, an essay on the history and collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and approximately fifty illustrated catalogue entries. The essays situate the objects included in the exhibition (the majority of which have been reproduced superbly in the catalogue) both in their historical and in their institutional context. The individual catalogue entries then illustrate and illuminate multitudinous varied facets of French history during this vast expanse of time.

A group of eminent American scholars - John J. Contreni, Elizabeth A.R. Brown, Orest Ranum, and Peter Gay - contribute essays dealing with the significance in French history of the power of culture and the culture of power. Interwoven with these writings are the essays chronicling the evolution of the collections of the BNF provided by four distinguished French scholars - Marie-Helene Tesniere, Antoine Coron, and Florence Callu - all of whom are curators at the BNF, along with the renowned historian and former administrateur general of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (also author of the introduction). The 207 well-researched and in-depth catalogue entries were written by a veritable army of curators, academics, and librarians. The objects include (among other things) illuminated manuscripts, military maps, musical scores, portraits, and coins, each of which affords a view into an essential part of the cultural patrimony and history of France.

The catalogue is an ambitious orchestration between two countries and, perhaps understandably in a complex international project, one senses some tension in the choice of theme and content in the catalogue. On the American side, it is clear that the idea of the primacy of power in realizing the creation of cultural and artistic objects is of key importance, while the French aim more to celebrate and share the rich, diverse holdings and the history of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. These goals need not be, and happily are not, mutually exclusive in this endeavor. Yet, what seems to have been sacrificed - probably in the name of distance, compromise, volume, and time - is in the details. Given the desire to display and elucidate these treasures of the BNF, a more consistent systematic record of the provenance would be expected. In addition, why would Charles V be left off the chronological table when he is credited throughout the catalogue with starting what we now know as the BNF? In a perfect world, these and some of the other inconsistencies would have been smoothed over, but the catalogue is a grand and glorious work, a grand travail, in its own right. This work is a fitting tribute to a superior cultural - and now we know political - institution and its history.

EMILY P. BAKEMEIER Princeton University
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Author:Bakemeier, Emily P.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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