The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 13, 2003
'Art and Soul

Recording intellectual journey of man
B.N. Goswamy

'Travellers in a Landscape', ca. 1787. Painting by Goethe in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana
‘Travellers in a Landscape’, ca. 1787. Painting by Goethe in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana

THIS is a piece about a library; but also, to an extent, about people. I was going to be in Geneva for a lecture last month, and high on my priority was the desire to visit what is one of the finest repositories of the written records of man in the European world: the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana. I had known of the existence of this library, and of a few illustrated manuscripts of my interest that it housed, but had never been inside it. I decided, therefore, first to read up a little about the place, as also about the foundation to which it belonged. And I found that, in doing so, I was educating myself in a manner. For this was no common collection of rare books: it was with a clear, limpid vision that the library was founded. Martin Bodmer (1899-1971), whose name the foundation and the library bear, was interested in tracing the intellectual journey of man from its first, faltering steps to the present day. And what better way to do this than to gather together texts, which involved the entire history of writing, regardless of where they were from? Like a man driven, he began some 70 years ago and built, over the years, a treasure house of untold riches.

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The celebrated statement of Samuel Kramer — "History begins in Sumer" — looms somewhere in the background of Martin Bodmer’s early collections. From Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets — of the kind of which heaps were lost recently when the Baghdad Museum was vandalised — to cylindrical seals, Egyptian papyrus documents to Greek ostracon-potsherds used in voting, early Christian codices to fragments of parchment, anything, in short, that held a mirror to man’s urge to ‘record’, were things he went out looking for, and collected. And, from somewhat later times, when books as we know them today, came in, he began picking up the choicest among them to place in his library: a 12th century copy of Ovid’s works, early French and German illuminated manuscripts of the most sumptuous quality, a handwritten 15th-century volume of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a volume of Petrarch’s Sonnets from the same period. From the time when printing with movable type came in, there is in the library, a copy of the first edition of the famous Bible that Gutenberg printed in the 15th century. With this book, he zeroed in on the most celebrated and rarest, of great works in existence. The finest expressions of the human spirit, he believed like many Europeans, were to be found in the five ‘pillars’ of world literature: the Bible, and the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe. And he filled the library with the finest editions of these that he could lay his hands on: a manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy belonging to the 14th century, the 1st edition of Shakespeare’s Comedies printed in 1623, a manuscript of Goethe’s Faust in his own hand. Thousands of volumes Martin Bodmer acquired, searching for them high and low. Rare and priceless editions of some of the greatest works of European literature — Rabelais’s Gargantua, Montaigne’s Essays, Chateaubriand’s Memoirs, Balzac’s Orphelins, Moliere’s Comedies, for instance — were gathered. Treasures from the East were also brought in: fine manuscripts and calligraphy from Persia, India, the Arab world. To be in the library was like seeing a vast, unending scroll with the literature of the world imprinted upon it being unrolled before your eyes. And then there are those remarkable prints and drawings on paper: works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Boucher.

But to come back to my own experience last month. I was to be in Geneva for less than a day after my lecture, and decided to call ahead of time from Zurich to make an appointment, because I knew that at this point of time the library was closed for renovations, and accessible to scholars only for one day in a week. I spoke to the Director, Dr Martin Bircher (whom I did not know at all, and had never met till then), and told him of my wish to come in and consult, if at all possible, a couple of Indian manuscripts in the library, for these were critical to the research that I was doing at that time. The director was most cordial and said he would make special arrangements for me to have access to the manuscripts — this on a day when the library was not ordinarily to be open — if I could only come in early. The library is in Cologny, an idyllically located suburb of Geneva on the lake, but I made my way to the place together with a friend. Once there, we were let in with great courtesy, for the two ladies on the staff had been alerted to my coming. They knew approximately what I was looking for, but needed just a little more information before they could pull the manuscripts out from the vaults where nearly everything had been put in, while renovation was in progress. I was handed in a printed list of all the Indian manuscripts they had, and asked to mark those that I would need to see. "It will take some time, but not more than a few minutes", the scientific assistant told us. And exactly as told, within less than ten minutes in fact, during which we were treated to coffee, and kept taking in the exquisite setting and the appointments of the library, the manuscripts did arrive. I set to work immediately, taking notes and some photographs. It took a few hours, but every now and then someone would come to ask if we were comfortable, or needed something. In between came, most gingerly, the request to let them know if any corrections needed to be made in their records pertaining to these manuscripts, in respect of title, script, dating, etc. Or share any other information with them. There was no pressure, simply a gently worded request: something that I was most happy to comply with since I knew something about the volumes in question. Work over, we were seen out with exactly the same cordiality with which we were received, and with an expression of ‘their’ gratitude for ‘my’ interest in the Library and their work. It could not have been more pleasant. Or more rewarding.

A sense of commitment

As I said at the beginning, I wanted this note to be as much about the library as about the people responsible for it. What else can I say? Clearly the passion that Martin Bodmer had for books courses also through the people who run the place now. And I wonder, sadly: of how many similar institutions, or people, in our own land can one say this?