Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Reims 1619-Paris 1683). French statesman and a bibliophile, Colbert started his career at the service of Cardinal Mazarin, who was at that time chief minister to young Louis XIV. Thanks to his extraordinary professional competence and his rare honesty, Colbert soon made himself indispensable, so as to be chosen as the natural successor to Mazarin as chief minister to Louis XIV.
Colbert governed the reign of France from 1661 to his death. He was in charge of nearly all government departments, with the exception of those dealing with foreign affairs and defence. He was above all a statesman of genius tasked with pursuing a policy attuned to the king's ambitions. On the other hand, he belonged to a century of cultural pre-eminence, which affected a person's sensibility as well as their social or political prestige. At the time when the palace of Versailles was built, Colbert was in charge of the country's cultural affairs. His achievements include the Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, known as the little Académie as distinct from the Académie française established by Richelieu. Like his wealthy contemporaries, and as an essential complement to his career, Colbert founded a library that was soon to add to his personal prestige, the Bibliotheca Colbertina. Thanks to Colbert's financial support and to his librarian, Etienne Baluze's dedication to his own job, the Colbertina soon became well-known among Europe's learned people for its rare editions and the vast number of books housed there. (About 20,000 volumes were counted on Colbert's death.) Colbert also owned a host of treasure manuscripts and a remarkable collection of coins and medals.
When Colbert's library was sold in 1728, the collections he had so patiently brought together were dispersed. Most of his manuscripts were purchased by the library of the king of France, while his printed editions were sold at auction all over Europe. A few of his books were acquired by the well-known, Milan-born Count Carlo Pertusati: they are now housed in the Brera Library (the Biblioteca Braidense).
Some eighty book covers once belonging to Colbert are now part of the Library's collections. Bindings executed expressly for him are usually bound in red morocco with cardboard backings, and they feature a border with an antique finish. The owner's coat of arms at the centre shows a snake (Latin coluber) surrounded by the collars of the Orders of St Michael and of the Holy Ghost. The spine is sometimes decorated with the monogram, JBC. The yapp edges are ornamented with stylized motifs, and the edges are gilt and sprinkled. Not all volumes from the Colbertina, however, were rebound, and therefore they have kept their original covers.

(Jean-Eudes Girot - Université de Valenciennes)

J.-B. Colbert's library


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