In this series, we are traveling the world's greatest museums through the eyes and minds of Cabana's curators, asking: if you only had an hour, what would you see? This week, Laura Kugel is at the Musée de la BnF, Paris.




We’ve been taught not to judge a book by its cover, and it’s equally important not to judge a museum by its name. Despite its confusing label, the “Cabinet des médailles” of the “Musée de la Bibliothèque nationale de France” (commonly dubbed “BnF”) is one of Paris’ most astounding art collections and best-kept secrets.

It is also among the oldest museums in the country, housing precious objects assembled by French kings since the late Middle Ages. The “BnF” has stood in the same location for several centuries, in the lively center of Paris hidden between the small dense streets around “rue Saint-Anne”, known for its flourishing Japanese restaurants. The large complex – part museum, part library, part art history research center – has developed in a typical Parisian manner. From a 17th-century house tweaked in the 1720s and rethought in the 1850s, it closed in 2010 to undergo an ambitious renovation program, reopening only in late 2022 in its current incarnation.

As you enter on the side of rue Vivienne and cross the lush garden to reach the BnF’s main entrance, take a moment to peek into the two impressive libraries: the Oval room and the Labrouste room. In between these temples of concentration, a white staircase carries you to the 2nd floor where the museum is laid out over a few large galleries. And here begins the amazement: from ancient Roman sculpture and silver to gems and cameos. An absolute treat that you are most likely to experience without crowds. So spread the word and indulge yourself with a true hidden gem.


Terracotta statuette of a dancing Ménade, Italy, 3rd century B.C.s


The first gallery is dedicated to ancient works covering a wide variety of materials and techniques. One case to the right displays terracotta figures of dancing vestals from the 3rd century B.C. Far from the solemn stillness of nearby marble busts, these are full of movement and evocative of Dionysiac festivities.


“Kudurru” (property charter) also named “Caillou Michaux”, Babylone, Mesopotamia, 1100-1083 B.C.


The same room is also home to a large slab of black stone engraved with dense scripture known as a “kudurru”. It is an ancient Babylonian record of a land grant dating back to around 1100 B.C. relating to the gift of a plot of land by a father to his daughter. It is also called “Caillou Michaux” after the famed 18th-century French botanist and explorer André Michaux, who brought the stone back from a trip to the Middle East and sold it to the museum in 1800 for 1200 francs.


“Trésor de Berthouvilleé" Silver hoard, 2nd century A.D.


A large case dominating the next space – dubbed the “precious cabinet” – contains the imposing Berthouville Treasure. Comprising dishes, spoons, and jugs, as well as two statuettes totaling 25kg of ancient silver, this hoard from the 2nd century A.D. was discovered in 1830 by a Normandy farmer plowing his field.


Cameo of Julie as Cérès, Rome, circa 10 B.C., the mounts, Paris, 1550-1560


Picking out just a couple of the many great jewels on display is a difficult task. One I never fail to examine is this profile cameo of Julie, daughter of Emperor Augustus, partly restored in gold. The ancient fragment – broken in half – was completed in the mid-16th century and was part of Louis XIV’s royal gems. It is one of these objects that seems to sit above the space-time continuum, its design and precious mounts nearly disguising it as an Art Nouveau pendant.


Cameo portrait of Alexander the Great attributed to Pyrgotélès, late 4th-early 3rd century B.C.. Mounts by Josias Belle, Paris, 1684-1689


This exceptionally fine cameo of Alexander the Great is attributed to Pyrgoteles, the only artist allowed to portray the conqueror during his lifetime. The carving is organized over three levels: a caramel-like background, the milky undertones of the chalcedony for the face, and the darker brown shade for the curls and ram’s horn (one of Alexander’s regular emblems). Little is known of the cameo’s early tribulations, but it is recorded in the collection of painter Peter-Paul Rubens as early as 1622 before being sold to the Duke of Buckingham (the one from Dumas’ “Three Musketeers”!) and eventually entering Louis XIV’s collection.


Dagobert’s Throne, late 8th-9th century


This throne offers a fascinating insight into the history of design. Despite its name, there remains doubt as to exactly when it was created, but most agree that it was somewhere between the late 8th to mid-9th century. It was first mentioned by the Abbé Suger as part of the Saint-Denis Cathedral’s treasure in the 12th century and considered a historical relic of French history since then. The seat’s last use was at Napoleon's first Legion d'Honneur medal ceremony in 1804, when he presumably broke it.


“Grand Camée de France”, Italy, Rome, first half of the 1st century A.D.


This last highlight of our tour stands at the entrance of the Mazarin gallery, a rare example of French Baroque architecture built by François Mansart between 1644 and 1646. Don’t forget to look up and admire the beautifully restored painted ceiling. The surroundings are overwhelming yet cannot distract from the rarest of all the gems preserved at the BnF: the “Grand Camée de France”. It is the largest known cameo to have survived from Antiquity, executed in the first quarter of the 1st century A.D. and mentioned in French royal inventories as early as 1247.


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