Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Hôtel Lambert

"I called on your father that week. In Paris he leased the house that had belonged to the architect Louis Le Vau on Ile Saint Louis, that was later incorporated into Hôtel Lambert by the family Le Haye, with whom his father had been friendly. When the hôtel was first built, the President of the Chambre des Comptes, Nicolas Lambert, invited both Le Brun and Le Sueur to do some mural decorating. Over the course of five years each man laboured to outdo the other. Of course the furniture was from Gobelins. It was not fashionable, and your father was looking for another residence to the west, but it was ample for his needs as a single man in Paris, and to live under Le Brun's magnificent painting, Phaeton and Ganymede, must have been worth the hundreds of livres he paid to live there. I entered from the Quai Anjou and came upon a small courtyard. The chamberlain led me to an outdoor stairway that ascended a few steps before splitting to the right and the left. The right hand staircase narrowed, then opened on a sunlight space, three times the width of the stair itself. At the top of the staircase we arrived at an oval vestibule through which I passed into a magnificent, long hall that extended the corps de logis and offered a breathtaking view of the enclosed gardens on the right and at the curved end, of the river itself and the Passerelle de Constantine. Your father greeted me there, and showed me the famous gallery. The theme of this magnificent room was the Labours of Hercules, displayed in the enormous ceiling murals and the bronze and gold stucco relief. There are few rooms like it anywhere in Paris, and I said as much to your father. He dismissed the praise politely saying that while it was lovely in the summer, it was uninhabitable after October on account of the draught. He then lead me through the Cabinet de l'Amour and Cabinet des Muses, named after their paintings on those subjects, then we returned to the ground floor library, beneath the long gallery. However magnificent the decorations, however ingenious the art of the elder Patel, Jan Asselyn, Romanelli, Le Brun and Le Sueur, or any of the other hands that had created such a monument to taste, they were as froth and foam to the importance of the work collected in those shelves. I could scarce believe my eyes. Your father had been bringing me the dregs.

"There are men who claim to know a man from the company he keeps, and woman who can read one's fortune from the lines in one's palm. However I think there is no better guide to a stranger's ancestry, education, present thought and current interests, to his imagination and fancy, his practical concerns and petty fears, than a catalogue of his books. Your grandfather was not like other aristocratic collectors, who satisfied themselves with a deluxe editions of Augustine's Civitate Dei, or the Works of Cervantes, or other commonplace books that turn up again and again in the marketplace. His books were rare and first editions of Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, Cellarius, Kepler, Apianus, Vesalius, Euclid, Leibniz, Napier...," my uncle tapped his forefinger against his temple as he recalled to memory the books he saw. "But more revealing than the books themselves, was the care in which they had been arranged, and the care the son had shown in preserving that order when the library was moved to Paris. The arrangement is everything, for a thinking man allows his thoughts to fly merely by scanning the titles of the authors he has read. There is a mathematical structure in the natural world that can be revealed or obscured by arranging Curiositez de la Mer des Indes, with its rich illustrations of the most bizarre creatures to swim the seas, in proximity to Elementa Geometriae, and a curiosity in the development of ideas discovered by keeping his incunabula together.

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