The Morgan Library and Museum is the creation of JP Morgan, a banker who amassed a fortune during America’s “Gilded Age.” When he died in 1913, his left behind an estate worth around $25 billion in today’s terms. What’s astonishing is that Morgan didn’t break the top ten richest Americans of that era. Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Astor, and Melon ruled that exclusive club. While his (much) wealthier contemporaries bought up some of the world’s finest art, Morgan focused his attention on books. By the early 1900s, his collection was so large it would no longer fit in his house.
Morgan had an annex built next to his residence, which was located on the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th street. He told the architects that he wanted a gem and they certainly delivered. The Italian-style palazzo is made of Tennessee pink marble. It cost a whopping $1.2 million ($26 million today) to complete. Morgan’s son, Jack, inherited the entire estate with the caveat that the literary collection must be preserved for the American people to enjoy. Thus, the Morgan Library and Museum was born.
The largest of the three rooms contains the bulk of Morgan’s collection. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases encircle the room on walls that are thirty feet tall. Hidden staircases provide access to the balconies that wrap around the upper tiers. Portraits of cultural luminaries, such as Dante, Socrates, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, adorn the gilded ceiling. They are accompanied by all the zodiac signs.
Mr. Morgan’s study is much more intimate in scale. The room’s antique wood ceiling and marble fireplace mantle were shipped over from Florence, while his desk and furnishings were custom made in London. Red damask and low wooden bookcases cover the walls. A specially-designed vault set into a wall holds some of the most valuable books.
What’s in the Morgan Library Collection?
First and foremost are the Gutenberg Bibles (the Morgan Library has three). Johann Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing process and these rare bibles are the first books ever made with moveable type. They date to 1455 and come from Mainz, Germany.
Another great masterpiece is the Lindau Gospels. This medieval treasure binding dates to 870 and is one of the finest in the world. Its front cover is pure gold and set with large jewels. The illuminated manuscript contains the four Gospels, the prologues of Jerome, and twelve canon tables. It was Morgan’s first major acquisition.
In addition, the Morgan collection includes many musical and literary works. These include original scores by Mozart and Beethoven, manuscripts of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” as well as handwritten letters from a wide array of historical figures. Glass cases on the library floor display highlights from each category.
You can find entrance hours and ticket prices on the Morgan Library and Museum website. For a glimpse of another collection of antique books, check out the Trinity College Library in this guide to Dublin.
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