10 Goodies at the Morgan
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This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of the building of the Morgan Library, designed by the architect Charles Follen McKim. To celebrate this occasion, the director Charles Pierce Jr. has invited the Morgan’s curators to discuss their 10 favorite objects in the museum. Their selections are to be entirely personal and will be presented in the Ten Decades, Ten Treasures lecture series. “They might or might not include the oldest or the rarest or the most valuable in their respective collections,” Mr. Pierce said.
In order to set the example, he decided to draw up his own list and presented it last week to kick off the series, which will run on Thursdays until July 27. “I, like David Letterman, love to make lists,” he said, adding that his choices were quite personal.
The first on his list is a manuscript of John Keats’s poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Mr. Pierce said his early love of Keats began as a junior at Harvard. The sonnet’s theme is one of literary discovery, and Keats adopted a tone of wonder and excitement “at the possibility of discovering worlds that you never knew and that you could only imagine through art.” He said it was a “a poem which celebrates the power of art to help you discover what you might not have known or could not have known.”
Mr. Pierce’s second choice was from William Blake’s illustrations of the Book of Job, whose theme is “the good and upright man who is assailed by all kinds of misfortunes and sorrows.”
The chosen illustration depicts a scene just after God had spoken to Job from the whirlwind. The story of Job, Mr. Pierce said, is one of someone transformed “from a self-pitying man into a man who understands his real place in the universe.”
Mr. Pierce said the story is one of the most haunting and profound explorations of “why bad things happen to good people.” In his view, it was the fundamental text of all the great works of literature that followed involving a quarrel with God. Mr. Pierce said that when he was a professor at Vassar, he taught a course on this subject that began with the Book of Job and continued with Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Mr. Pierce’s next choice was the only part of Milton’s original manuscript of “Paradise Lost” that has been preserved. He said Milton aimed to show that the fall of man was not a human tragedy but a comedy in the sense that Dante used the word.
The director also showed what he called “the greatest drawing in the collection of Old Master drawings in the Morgan”: “Adam and Eve” (1504) by Albrecht Durer.
He next turned to the “Farnese Hours,” an illuminated manuscript created in 1546 in Rome. He said a biographer of Renaissance artists, Vasari, called it “a new, if smaller, Michelangelo.” Mr. Pierce said the color palette of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was similar.
“This is really a miniature Renaissance painting,” he said, adding that if one made it larger, one would have a work worthy of Titian or Raphael. It was Morgan’s favorite; whenever he had a dinner party, and had people who would appreciate it, nothing gave him more pleasure than to bring out this book and show his guests.
Mr. Pierce next proceeded to “an obvious choice”: the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed from movable type. He said 180 were printed, 48 survived, and the Morgan is alone in having three. He described it as “a typographic masterpiece” that paved the way for the spread of literacy, as well as having played a critical role in the Protestant Reformation.
To stay on a religious note, Mr. Pierce showed his next choice, the frontispiece of the King James version of the Bible. “This is not a rare book, but this is truly a great book,” he said. It was the first edition of the Bible ever created in English, and it remained the only English translation of the Bible between 1611 and 1885.He noted that the 19th-century Victorian historian Thomas Macaulay noted that it was “a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” Mr. Pierce amused the audience by reading comparative passages from the King James version and a more recent translation, one in which Christ asks that a net be cast into the water. He said the author Adam Nicolson described the newer translation has having “the atmosphere of a 1930s bathing party.”
Next, Mr. Pierce showed a drawing by Rembrandt of a woman carrying a child down a flight of stairs, followed by a famous passage from Thoreau’s journals. Keeping the theme that these were personal choices, Mr. Pierce said he grew up about three or four miles from Walden Pond and learned how to swim there.
Mr. Pierce ended with a manuscript of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” in which the poet “expresses better than I can my own view of human nature,” namely that of the “cheerful pessimist.”
What do his personal favorites add up to? Mr. Pierce said first that he hoped they suggested the breadth and depth of the Morgan Library collection. Second, he said they shared the degree to which he has sought answers to basic questions about how best to live one’s life as well as also a sense of the enjoyment he had derived from experiencing the mastery of craft of the art of these great artists.