Visual Order to Organizing Collections

Maryanne Cline Horowitz. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

A generation trained to select icons on a desktop computer is able to take a fresh approach to the visual cues within early rooms of collection. Visual cues often preceded catalogs and inventories, helping users to situate themselves in the room and to locate items of the collection. In searching out the modes of conceptualizing, mapping, and classifying of collections, we shall see that the distinctive details of ceilings, walls, cabinets, or furniture of a collection room may be functional elements organizing manuscripts or other valuable objects in the room. Scholars Alain Besson, André Masson, Eric Garberson, and Maryanne Cline Horowitz have examined visual classification schemes, especially in libraries and studies, but a plethora of extant as well as defunct rooms of collections might similarly be examined. The Journal of the History of Collections (founded 1989) might be the appropriate venue.

Each section of this entry features a distinctive type of iconography for rooms of collection: hunting, horticulture, cabinets of curiosity, author portraits, imperial busts, the disciplines of knowledge, the circle of knowledge, secular temples, and towers of knowledge.

Hunting for Precious Objects

Excavations in the basement of the Louvre reveal the circular fortress of the Tour de la Fauconnerie (Tower of Falconry), where medieval French kings sent birds out tower windows and stored their hunting gear. In 1367, imitating the three floors of manuscripts of the Tour de la Garde-Robe (Tower of the Vestments) of the papal palace in Avignon, King Charles V (r. 1364-1380) moved the royal collection of books to this tower, renaming it the Tour de la Librairie. Christine de Pisan in her 1405 book about wise King Charles V of France notes the orderly arrangement of his library. The reference to “hunting” for manuscripts is most evident in the frescos completed about 1345 on the four walls of the Chambre du Cerf (Room of the Deer) in the Tour de la Garde-Robe, Avignon. The frescos of hunting with birds, hunting with dogs, fowling in trees, and fishing in ponds would help a cleric to locate a handwritten animal-skin manuscript on one of the tables in the room (Horowitz, 1998, pp. 123-128). By ancient rhetorical theory, a trained student is a huntsman finding the locations of hidden knowledge, and from Petrarch onward humanists were praised as manuscript-hunters.

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), in setting up her second suite of rooms in the ducal palace of Mantua, transformed the scalcheria (the room where meat, vegetables, and other delicacies were previously prepared for banquets) into a room for sorting and arranging her collection of antiquities. With good humor, she commissioned Lorenzo Leonbruno to paint on the upper walls female hunters hunting for deer; seen from below, the Amazons appear to be pointing their arrows down toward the objects in the room. Isabella d’Este—who to acquire desired antiquities wrote both the duke of Milan and Andrea Mantegna on their deathbeds—with Amazonian imagery likened hunting to collecting.

The Boston Public Library in Boston, Massachusetts, opened in 1896, was noted for its large card-catalog room with a decorative frieze of the search for the Holy Grail; the published dissertation on the topic (Ferris Greenslet, The Quest of the Holy Grail, 1902) misses the humor of the implied analogy between the adventures within medieval legends of seeking the cup from which Jesus drank and the often time-consuming, circuitous paths between card-catalog entries and shelves to finding the ideal cup of knowledge (or book) for which one longs.

Horticulture and Culture

Thirteenth-century Richard de Fournival discusses his “garden” of manuscripts in La biblionomia. This catalog shows the rows of his plantings: about three hundred manuscripts entered the founding collection of the Sorbonne of which forty of Fournival’s have survived. The duke of Berry, most famous for his manuscript of the calendar months, utilized the insignia of vegetative “roots” to designate his manuscripts. Piero de’ Medici, father of Lorenzo the Magnificent, created a studiolo (a study) in the Medici Palace, Via Larga, Florence. The twelve calendar months by Luca della Robbia on the ceiling are a visual cataloging system pointing out the twelve categories of Piero’s classical and Christian books below, color-coded in the written catalogs of 1456 and 1464-1465 (Horowitz, 2003).

Isabella d’Este’s second suite of schaleria, studiolo, grotto, and garden created an atmosphere of a garden of virtues, as in the Mantegna painting Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (1499-1502) which hung in the studiolo (now in the Louvre). Hovering in a cloud on the right are the three cardinal virtues; below in the distance, a pleasant landscape seen through the tree-lined archways reveals vices fleeing and new growth growing from old roots; in the foreground on the left is the Mother of Virtue imprisoned in a tree; and in the center, vices pollute the pond. Minerva (Pallas Athene) and two goddesses enter and seek to bring about a return to a garden of virtue.

The analogy of “culture” and horti”culture” is evident in many languages. The tree catalog of the library of Saint-Lambrecht, a painted panel by Michel Boeckyn (1688-1742), utilizes the common image of a tree of knowledge, with the various branches of knowledge rising from a trunk (fig. 4, Masson, 1981). One might plant a collection of books or other valuables, many might labor in the fields of scholarship and the arts, and a society devoted to cultivating the arts might create an abundant culture. French King Francis I (r. 1515-1547) was praised by his courtiers for his cultivation of the humanist virtues, which are equally evident in his manuscript collection, in the flowery ephemeral art of his royal entries, and in the flowers and fruit ornamenting the wall paintings in the Galerie Francis I, Fontainebleau. The analogy of writing to agricultural productivity, like the analogy of collecting to hunting, also helped make these cultural activities appropriately aristocratic.

Agricultural abundance ornamenting cultural institutions was so prevalent in the eighteenth century that it barely receives comment; note especially the decoration of the rotunda library of the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, and of the stucco ceiling at the entrance to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. In the mid-nineteenth century, the upper walls of the main reading room of the Bibliothèque nationale were painted with illusionistic windows revealing sky and treetops. The implication that natural vegetative growth encourages the growth of the mind was expressed in the medieval tradition of drawings of a scholar in a study with an open cupboard showing fruit. (John Clark, in The Care of Books [1901], asks why the fruit are there [p. 313].)

Cabinets of Curiosity

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, collectors arranged a diversity of natural and crafted objects within decorative furniture cabinets, as well as within rooms that served as cabinets of curiosity. When one enters Isabella d’Este’s grotto in Corte Vecchia, one feels that one is inside an elaborate jewelry box. Ornate marquetry woodwork decorates the doors to the cabinets that once contained her valuables; the distinctive perspective pictures would remind her of the exact location of her antiquities protected in this room.

At the corner of the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, is the restored study of Francesco I, the work of Giorgio Vasari in 1570-1575. Under the vaulted ceiling, there are numerous paintings. A door behind the sixth painting, Alessandro Allori’s Cleopatra’s Feast, with his Pearl-fishing above, opens to a staircase leading to thetesoretto, a small treasure room with eleven cupboards, one of which leads to a further room below. In the context of Francesco I’s collecting, Allori’s Cleopatra’s Feast is his Pearl-fishing, a playful allusion to the hunting for treasure below.

The studiolo in the ducal palace of Urbino plays with this genre by appearing to show the contents of cabinets in its elaborate marquetry. While the open door at the front of the protruding central panel of squirrel and flower bowl is not in fact a door, a door on the right side of that panel does in fact open. Duke Federigo da Montelfeltro kept treasures in two cubicles below his studiolo: a temple to the muses for antiquities and a chapel to God for his relics. Also, his library contained several hundred manuscripts; some of those authors are featured in the portraits on the upper walls above the marquetry of his studiolo.

“Portraits” of Authors

Providing a portrait, even if fictional, of the key authors of one’s set of manuscripts helped individualize the books and encouraged the illusion that those select guests invited to the room were conversing amid the authorities. The pairs of portraits on the upper walls of the duke’s studiolo in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino—somewhat representative as in Petrarch, Dante, and contemporary churchmen, and fictive as in Moses (right corner) and Solomon—relate to valued manuscripts in the library a floor below.

In Julius II’s (r. 1503-1513) study in the Vatican, the Stanza della Segnatura, bookcases were attached to the walls under the now famous paintings School of Athens, Parnassus, Dispute over the Sacrament, and Jurisprudence. Plato, Aristotle, Homer, and others are portrayed with their books, which would have been in the room for Julius’s usage. Two hundred eighteen of Julius’s books were in this room, known in his lifetime as “the upper library.” As André Masson pointed out, the Dispute over the Sacrament and the School of Athens were imitated later in the library of Jesuits of Valenciennes (1740-1742) to distinguish the collecting of classical works from the collecting of Christian disputations.

The frieze of over two hundred authors in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, depicted in 1616-1618 in the three-sided gallery (now the Upper Reading Room), have numerical references in each author’s portrayal to the shelf location of the author’s respective books in the neighboring Duke Humphrey’s Library, where the books remain chained today. The Bodleian Gallery displays the innovative wall shelves with heroes above (except for one heroine, Sappho) of the respective faculties of theology, arts, medicine, and law. First one walks between the theologians seeming to vie with each other across the room, then one peruses the classical authors of the liberal arts, and then one walks between the teachers of medicine and the teachers of law. The visual cues of the arts section lead one to the referenced manuscripts of classical and “modern” authors in Duke Humphrey’s Library.

David Rogers has suggested that the frieze portrait imitates and enlivens the manuscript image of Roger Bacon. Further research might be done on the respective pictorial examples, seeking sources for the particular image, gesture, sayings, and symbols, as in André Thevet’s Portraits des hommes illustres, 1584, and in Théodore de Bèze’s (Beza; 1519-1605) Icones vivorum illustrium, 1580. The author frieze, the 1604 catalog, and the 1620 catalog are alternative Renaissance innovations in the area of indexing an exclusive collection for members of Oxford University, government dignitaries, and foreigners (either university students or graduates).

An alternative type of frieze is not of authors but of dignitary patrons or users of a local library. Sixty-seven portraits of fathers of the Abbaye de Saint-Victor adorn their library in Paris (1684); the architectural construction of the frieze high above the wall bookshelves is modeled on the Ambrosiana Library in Milan, designed by Federigo Borromeo, 1603-1609 (Masson, 1972, pp. 107, 117, fig. 58).

Imperial Busts

To collect imperial coins or busts and to organize one’s objects in the categories of Suetonius’s twelve emperors suggests an appearance of imperial activity. Many Renaissance collections of ancient Roman imperial coins are displayed in room two of the Archaeological Museum, Venice, and busts of the emperors are displayed in the Room of the Emperors in the Palazzo Borghese. A common pastime among Italian humanists and antiquarians was the collection of coins with heads of the twelve Caesars discussed in Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars. Most influential, Petrarch collected such coins of the emperors and utilized both image and inscription to corroborate information. Furthermore, applying such numismatics to challenging church history and policy, Lorenza Valla wrote in 1440 the Declamation Concerning the False Donation of Constantine. Filarete, in discussing the collection in Piero de’ Medici’s studiolo of the 1450s to 1460s, mentioned intaglios of Caesar, Octavian, Vespasian, Tiberius, Hadrian, Trajan, Domitian, Nero, and Antonius Pius, as well as Faustina, and viewed them as a more accurate record than writing. Humanists learned from Pliny, Natural History 35.2.9-10, that portraits and busts inspired readers in ancient libraries, and some humanists and collectors, such as Piero’s brother, Giovanni de’ Medici (d. 1463), organized a studiolo by busts of emperors.

The culmination of organizing via busts of emperors is the continuing use of imperial names as the cataloging system of the Cotton collection of the British Library, a collection visually central to the new British Library. Colin C. Tite has argued that in the 1620s the Cotton House displayed busts of the twelve emperors and of Cleopatra and Faustina above the presses containing the books labeled by that imperial name.

Cotton’s many coins gave him full examples of Roman images of the emperors. The British Library manuscript room contains the first catalog of Cotton manuscripts arranged in accordance with the emperor system, Additional MS 36682, fols. 14v-15 (approximately 1638). It places the books marked Cleopatra and Faustina after the books marked Julius and Augustus, and then continues the line of emperors; on the other hand, the Thomas Smith Catalogue, 1696 (reprint, 1984) lists the books marked Cleopatra and the books marked Faustina after the books of the twelve emperors. An imagined reconstruction focuses on the noncontroversial location of the presses of the first two emperors Julius and Augustus. Books and objects were arranged by size within the fourteen categories.

Disciplines of Knowledge

Classification of books by disciplines occurs in the Chinese, Islamic, and European traditions. Starting in the third century, the imperial library of China classified books into four disciplines: canonical and classical, historical, philosophical, and literary, and there was a corresponding color-coding scheme. Chinese encyclopedism, which began in the fourth century B.C.E., reached a culmination under Emperor Quianlong, whose reign extended from 1736 to 1795. A devotee of arts and letters who personally painted and did calligraphy according to the great masters, Quianlong in 1772 launched a copying project for over ten thousand books and manuscripts. The project—involving 16 directors, 361 scholars, and 4,000 assistants or copyists—resulted in an extensive collection of over ten thousand books and manuscripts. Likewise, Quianlong commissioned the covers of the books in the traditional color scheme: green for classics, red for history, blue for philosophy, gray for literature. The catalog of 10,254 entries follows the four-part scheme; three original copies have survived (Schaer, pp. 350-367).

Piero de’ Medici, father of Lorenzo the Magnificent, used color-coding in his catalog of books and in his book bindings in his studiolo in the Medici Palace, Florence. Many of these hand-illuminated works are in good condition in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence. The main room designed by Michelangelo opened in 1571; the subject names still survive on the sides of the lecterns where the books were then chained. Likewise, the Latin words for “Grammar books” and “Medical books” appear on window inscriptions of the library of the cathedral chapter of Bayeux (c. 1464) and correspond in location to that indicated in the catalog of 1480.

In the Escorial Library of Philip II of Spain, designed by Juan de Herrara and constructed 1575-1792, as a great hall 212 feet by 35 feet with a barrel vault 35 feet from the floor, paintings of personifications of the liberal arts rise from above the wall bookcases. These are Philosophy, Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astrology, and Theology. The figure of Grammar thus rose above the shelves designated for grammar in the Escorial Library (fig. 31, Masson, 1972 ). While decorating a library with muses or personifications of the liberal arts was not new, lining a rectangular room with wood bookcases was a new innovation, allowing those entering to see and grasp the unity of the open-spaced room and to use the books stacked horizontally on the shelves (Frey Jose de Siguenza, Fundacion del Monasterio de El Escorial, 1595 (reprint, 1963), pp. 279-280). The Ambrosian Library, Milan, 1603-1609, established wall bookcases as the norm for Italy.

Until about 1700, Fearlier in Italy, upper wall and ceiling figures of muses might correlate with the matching books inspired by that muse. The books in lecterns, cases, or shelves would correlate with the appropriate decor of that classification. For example, Garberson has studied a transition library, the Austrian Biblotheca Windhagiana, built 1650-1673, which gave more decorative space to theology to match the extensive collection in that field on the shelves below. Allowing for a unified decor despite continuing purchase of books in varying fields, later libraries allowed the architectural space to designate a balanced distribution of design illustrating the overall purposes of the library. Nevertheless, in the 1764 first printing of Descripcion del Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Andres Ximenez classified his partial list of four thousand volumes by the muses in Pellegrino Tibaldi’s paintings decorating the ceiling and archway of the main floor of the library.

Through the nineteenth century, the muses remained a popular decorative scheme in libraries, as well as in opera houses, where they are often dancing in a circle. Above the entry hall staircase of the Boston Pubic Library, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes painted the muse of history viewing ancient ruins, as well as a new iconography for physics, represented by figures of good and bad news holding the telegraph pole.

Extensive collections required division not simply by a section of a room, but by multiple rooms. Avicenna (Ibn Sina), awed by the size of the Islamic library at Bukhara at the end of the tenth century, reported that each room was designated for a particular discipline of knowledge and contained trunks of books: poetry and Arabic philology, jurisprudence, and others. Sorting knowledge into “rooms” is a theme in the Roman Quintillian’s (c. 35-c. 100) Art of Rhetoric. In the Institute of Research in History in the Senate House of the University of London, there is virtually a house of history with, for example, rooms for specific national histories in specific centuries. On a smaller scale, in his influential 1885 design for a history seminar room on German precedent at Johns Hopkins University, Herbert Baxter Adams planned the room to house alcoves of histories, of related disciplines such as political science and economics, and of primary sources such as laws and public documents; nearby rooms were designated for ancillary tools such as maps and statistics (Smith, p. 1159, illustration).

Succession of Collections

Great book collections, as well as large museums, have absorbed within them previous collections. The Vatican Library took pride in its role as a preserver of and successor to previous cultures. Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590) commemorated that tradition by commissioning fictive fresco images of some of the libraries contained within his collecting project. The graphical design shows the arrangement of images of great libraries of diverse peoples and the great council meetings that set church doctrine. Works that in private hands might cause an accusation of heresy against their owner were safely stored in the closed cabinets five feet high on the perimeter wall and around the columns of this rectangular great hall, 184 by 57 feet.

The neo-Gothic library of the London Guild House also has visual renditions of earlier libraries. Starting with the Louvre in the late eighteenth century, great museums sought to collect works from a succession of great civilizations: the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman, the Christian, the Italian Renaissance, the French Classical, and so forth. With changing tastes in the nineteenth century, curators added additional works of medieval art and of Northern Renaissance art.

Circles of Knowledge

In the Renaissance, the sphere and the circle were viewed as perfect forms. The medical school in Padua, in initiating one of the earliest and most famous botanical gardens, chose a circular arrangement. Plants from the Americas were transplanted there.

Reading rooms imitating the ancient Roman Pantheon dome became an engineering feat and architectural possibility in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1857 Sidney Smirke worked with Anthony Panizzi to construct the reading room within the courtyard of the British Museum. Ten years later in 1867, Henri Labrouste, having studied the London feat and applying the analogy of culture to horticulture, which he already had applied in the tree decoration of the bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, created the main reading room of the Bibliothèque nationale, Richelieu.

Readers in either room were encircled by topically organized reference books; they literally might walk around the circle of knowledge. This central wheel of essential knowledge has spokes leading out to the stacks of more detailed books retrieved by librarians at the reader’s request desk.

The United States imitated both great circular reading rooms in the 1886-1897 construction of the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. The figures painted on the dome depict a chronological sequence of civilizations contributing to the collection: Egypt, Judea, Greece, Rome, Islam, Middle Ages, Italy, Germany, Spain, England, France, America. Statues of eight personifications of disciplines and of two great male achievers for each discipline encircle readers seeking knowledge of Philosophy, Art, History, Commerce, Religion, Science, Law, and Poetry.

Awe-Inspiring Temples

Some of the earliest rooms of collection of Chinese Buddhist art are in Toshodaiji near Nara, Japan. In the Kondo (main hall) at Toshodaiji, 759 C.E., one sees an arrangement reminiscent of an emperor with courtiers in the rendition of a large seated Buddha with Bodhisattvas on either side. The entire complex of buildings at Toshodaiji is symmetrical, the great Buddha hall as the center with twin pagodas on either side. Museum goers may thus study ancient Chinese culture within Japanese temples.

During the Italian Renaissance, Venice was a good location for studying ancient Greek culture. La Libreria Sansoviniana in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana is on the second floor of a columned building across from the ducal palace and basilica of Venice. Built by architect Jacopo Sansovino in 1591, it is especially famous for its ceiling painting by Titian of Wisdom. Nicola Ivanoff has elaborated on the Neoplatonic iconography of the ceiling and wall decoration of the room containing the rare manuscripts. The scheme involves personifications for virtues and for the disciplines (Ricciardi, pp. 33-44 with illustrations). Slanted desks housed the valuable possessions of Greek manuscripts collected by Cardinal Bessarion and donated to the city of Venice in 1468.

Considering this special room in the context of the path to it, one finds large caryatids by Alessandro Vittoria (1553-1555) guarding the original entrance, which leads up a winding vaulted staircase to a vestibule heavily decorated with classical sculpture donated in 1587 by the cardinal and patriarch of Aquileia, Giovanni Grimani.

In ancient Greek temple sites, as in Athens, one walked up a holy path to the hilltop temple and then stood outside the temple housing the statue of the god or goddess. To reach the collection of Greek manuscripts, one walks up a holy way and stands in a vestibule of ancient sculpture. The holy of holies in La Libreria Sansoviniana is not the effigies of gods but the Greek manuscripts.

Towers of Knowledge

In the basement of the Louvre, one can still observe the walls of the tower wherein King Charles V set his library. An M. C. Escher-influenced medieval tower is featured in the scene of manuscripts burning in the film The Name of the Rose; therein one sees Richard de Fournival portrayed rescuing manuscripts that will later enter into the library of the Sorbonne. In the upper story tower study of Château de Montaigne, Michel de Montaigne in the 1570s, 1580s, and early 1590s utilized the book collections of his father and of his friend Étienne de La Boétie to nourish his own thoughts on numerous important social concerns of his day in his Essais. Imagining his mind as an infertile field and as a galloping horse, he recommends as a remedy proper sowing and careful reining (Essais 1.8 on idleness, “De l’oiseveté”). With self-discipline, he inscribed on the beams of his ceiling his favorite literary and philosophical sayings. After his death in 1592, Marie de Gournay worked in the book-lined tower study to prepare the 1595 posthumous edition of his essays and to track down the original sources of Montaigne’s Greek and Latin classical quotes.

The newest Bibliothèque nationale, at François-Mitterrand/Tolbiac in Paris, rises in four towers of books from the rectangular garden of trees. The Tower of Time, the Tower of Letters, the Tower of Numbers, and the Tower of Law appear to grow from the arboretum. The “Haut-de Jardin,” the upper garden, serves to cultivate the general public while the “Rez-de-Jardin” encourages the deeper cultivation of the research scholar.

While the new library in Paris stores the books in towers, the new British Library in the St. Pancras Building, opened by the queen in June 1998, stores the books underground. Both great national and international collections utilize the latest technology for online reader requests as well as automated, mechanical means for book retrieval. Nevertheless, the British especially value the books extant from John Cotton’s Library as well as the rest of King George III’s books, which King George IV gave to the nation in 1823. These books rise in a six-story bronze and glass tower in the center of the new British Library.