Pierpont Morgan's Palace of Culture In Mid-Manhattan

Rare books, relics, letters, and illuminated manuscripts share space in the lavishly appointed Morgan Library

`DON'T worry about perfection. You'll never make it,'' Salvador Dali is reported to have said once. Fortunately, the financier John Pierpont Morgan never heard such a warning. In building his library, he aimed for perfection.

Morgan (1837-1913) was a mogul of the Gilded Age, so wealthy that he raised $25 million in one afternoon during the panic of 1907 to stave off a run on the banks. More than a banker, he fancied himself a custodian of culture.

Around the turn of the century, this lifelong Anglophile began to assemble a gentleman's library designed to bring the best of European civilization to American shores. He bought in bulk, shipping to New York boatloads of porcelain, objets d'art, and medieval manuscripts.

To house these collections, Morgan built a sumptuous Italian Renaissance palazzo on the corner of Madison and East 36th Street. To furnish it, he imported marble columns from a French chateau, a coffered ceiling from Florence, and stained glass from Swiss monasteries.

This treasure house - the repository of documents and objects that reflect the pinnacle of Western culture - is both a research library and a museum open to the public. A visit to the Pierpont Morgan Library is like browsing through the top monuments of Western Civ. 101.

First, there's the building itself. Several period rooms dating from 1906 are perfectly preserved. The entrance rotunda, with its multicolored marble, alabaster, lapis lazuli columns and ceiling paintings modeled on Raphael's designs for the Vatican, is a robber baron's dream of High Renaissance splendor.

The library contains an extraordinary collection of early rare books and manuscripts, including three Gutenberg Bibles from 1455. Superb medieval manuscripts, inscribed and decorated by hand, are also exhibited.

It's obvious why the manuscripts are called illuminated, for the lavish miniatures in jewel-bright colors and gold leaf seem irradiated with light.

In the rotating display of music manuscripts, one might see scrawled notes from a Beethoven string quartet, while in the literary manuscripts, Martin Luther writes to convince a friend of predestination in 1531. On a secular note, the collection contains Napoleon's love letters to Josephine and Galileo's announcement of his discovery of sunspots.

Morgan's study remains virtually as it was when he relaxed there to smoke and play solitaire. The array of objects reveals the diversity of his interests. Old Master paintings by Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, and Perugino coexist with a solid gold (26 pounds' worth) paperweight. Statues, which Morgan called his ``knickknacks,'' include a Babylonian figure made in 2300 B.C. and a bronze Eros recovered from ruins near Pompeii.

The library's most extraordinary art object is the Stavelot Triptych, a 12th-century Belgian reliquary. Reputed to be a receptacle for the True Cross (fragments of wood and a nail are enclosed), the gem-encrusted gold and enameled reliquary shines with the faith of the master artisans who made it.

Throughout the year, the library mounts high-quality exhibitions based on its collections of rare books, manuscripts, and drawings. One exhibition on view until Jan. 2 highlights the manuscript and original drawings for Antoine Saint-Exupery's beloved book, ``The Little Prince,'' first published 50 years ago.

Also on display until Jan. 2 are 125 drawings that reflect the history of French art from 1400 to the late 1800s. The show includes all major styles, from the classical balance of Claude Lorrain's leafy landscapes to the rococo virtuosity of Watteau and Fragonard. David's drawing shows how he modeled his figures on antique Roman statues, while Ingres's crisply delineated pencil portrait captures his subject's external features and inner character.

Among the library's prizes is a first edition of Sir Francis Bacon's ``Novum Organum'' (1620), in which the essayist broke with the classical past and defined the scientific method. On the engraved frontispiece is a picture of a ship sailing from the Old World to the new. This image is a perfect emblem for the Morgan Library, dedicated to transporting ancient glories to modern Manhattan.

Charles Dickens's handwritten first draft of ``A Christmas Carol,'' first published 150 years ago, is featured through Jan. 9. Although Dickens wrote it in just six weeks, the heavily revised manuscript shows the care he took. In one correction, ``Bah, Christmas'' became ``Bah, Humbug!''

Dickens first planned to write a tract begging the upper classes to help slum children. Instead, he wrote a tale to reform the Ebenezer Scrooges of his day.

The book was, as Dickens noted, ``a prodigious success'' that touched its readers with Scrooge's final promise to ``honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year.''

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