Books & Manuscripts

10 Collections for the Bibliophile: the Best Museums for Books and Manuscripts

By Alice Cavallo
Library of the Rijksmuseum, Netherlands

Library of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

Whether about science, music, history, or religion, books and manuscripts have always been precious sources of knowledge and objects of high value - not only for their didactic and historiographical importance but also for their inherent aesthetic qualities as individual works of art.

In advance of Sotheby’s Fine Books and Manuscripts Online sale, we've brought together some of our favorite museum collections of books and manuscripts across the globe, highlighting the individual works worth looking up on your next visit. Read on!

The Diamond Sutra, 868 AD, ink on paper, © British Library

British Library:

The Largest Collection in the World
It's number one because it's number one. Yes, the British Library is the largest library in the world and regarded as the national library of the United Kingdom. The British Library is primarily a research library holding over 170 million objects in dozens of languages and across all formats - both print and digital. The collections include around 14 million books, along with significant holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC, including a superlative Diamond Sutra from the 9th century.

Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, Biblia Latina, c. 1455, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1896, The Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan Library and Museum:

From Private Retreat to Public Institution
Before it was a museum, it was an extravagant private library. The Italian Renaissance-style palazzo of The Morgan Library & Museum began as the personal library of American financier Pierpont Morgan. As early as 1890, Morgan had begun to assemble a collection of illuminated, literary and historical manuscripts and early printed books alongside old master drawings and prints. Eleven years after his death, his son J.P. Morgan made the library and its treasures available to scholars and the public alike by transforming it into a public institution. Today, first editions of Shakespeare, elaborately gilded bibles, and even 20th century works can be viewed through rotating exhibitions of the permanent collection, which continues to be expanded through the Museum's acquisition programme.

Picture 47 of the Ambrosian Iliad, Achilles Sacrificing to Zeus for Patroclus' Safe Return. Iliad Book 16. 220-252.

Biblioteca Ambrosiana:

A Library of Libraries in the Heart of Milan
Named after Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, also home to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana and the Ambrosian art gallery, is a historic library in Milan which was founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo, whose agents scoured Western Europe and even Greece and Syria for the best books and manuscripts. In fact, the library went so far as to purchase entire libraries including those of the Benedictine monastery of Bobbio as well as the library of the Paduan Vincenzo Pinelli. The latter came complete with over 800 ancient manuscripts including the famous Ambrosian Iliad, the Ilias Picta.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy F, 1789, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art), object 15-26 A Dream, The William Blake Archive

Yale Center for British Art:

The Literary Meets the Architectural
Besides being home to the largest collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom, the Yale Center for British Art includes a collection of 35,000 rare books and manuscripts relating to the visual arts and cultural life in the United Kingdom and the former British Empire. The range is impressive, with works dating from the 15th century to the present. And, for those less interested in the literary arts, the building is a masterpiece itself. The distinguished architecture of the Center, which opened to the public in 1977, was designed by internationally acclaimed American architect Louis I. Kahn. It is a must-see on any visit to New England, and a testament to the cultural exchange between the United Kingdom and New Haven since America's founding.

Schwarz gebetbuch, Berlin, Staatl. Museen - Kupferstichkabinett, Anbetung Marias und des Kindes durch Matthäus Schwarz zu Augsburg, 1521


The Holy Grail of All Things Paper
Considered one of the four most important museums of its kind in the world, the Kupferstichkabinett, or Museum of Prints and Drawings, is the centre for all draughtsmanship and printmaking, manuscript illumination and artistic book illustration at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Its extensive holdings are deeply academic and of the highest quality, with interpretation for scholars of all levels. Hundreds of illuminated manuscripts and hand-written texts adorned with exquisite miniatures date from the Middle Ages, while collections of original graphic art, special portfolios, and sketch books of all periods offer something for museum lovers and collectors of all tastes.

Unknown, North Africa or Southern Spain, 9th or 10th Century, Blue Qur'an Page, The Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha:

An Island of Jewel-like Islamic Manuscripts
Built on an island as per architect I. M . Pei’s requirement, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar houses a collection of over 800 Islamic manuscripts on subjects ranging from science and literature to civic life and religion. Highlights include early Qur’ans from the dawn of Islam in the 7th century and richly complex Ottoman works from the 19th century. The museum displays two of only five known pages from the largest Qur’an in the world, the Timurid Baysunghur Qur’an, and the famous Abbasid Blue Qur’an, one of the rarest manuscripts in the Islamic world.

Simon Bening, Book of Hours, Netherlandish; Manuscript; c. 1530-35, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 2015

The Cloisters:

The Met Offers a Thoroughly Medieval Experience
With a collection of approximately 15,000 objects of medieval architecture, painting, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, sculpture and decorative arts, the library at The Met Cloisters collects research material for the study of medieval art and related topics. The archives also contain material relating to the history of the museum, such as private papers of James J. Rorimer, the museum’s founding director, and George Grey Barnard, who amassed the core of its collection and was a medievalist famous for wearing period armor and throwing costume parties in 13th century style. For the perfect, unexpected escape from the madness of Manhattan, pay a visit to the Cloisters during the warmer months, when the medieval gardens are in full bloom and you can enjoy the outdoor spaces of the collection.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No 4, 1807, manuscript, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle

Lobkowicz Palace:

A Home for Music Lovers in the Heart of Prague
Over 700 years of Czech and European history are contained within the Lobkowicz Palace, comprising of the oldest and largest privately-owned art collection in the Czech Republic. In addition to world-famous paintings by artists such as Brueghel the Elder, Canaletto and Velázquez, the palace, now open to the public, also contains hand-annotated manuscripts by several 17th and 19th century composers, including Beethoven’s 4th and 5th symphonies and Mozart’s re-orchestration of Handel’s Messiah.

Guido Mazzoni, The Primer of Claude of France pp. 1-2, circa 1505, illumination on parchment, 26 x 17.5 cm (10.2 x 6.8 in), Fitzwilliam Museum

Fitzwilliam Museum:

The University of Cambridge's Premiere Manuscripts
Founded in 1816 by the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion who bequeathed his vast collection of art, music and books to the University of Cambridge, the University's Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the oldest art and antiquities museums in the world. Fitzwilliam's library includes 130 medieval manuscripts and a collection of autographed musical scores by composers such as Handel and Purcell. Several of the works are kept in storage to protect them from the light, but all can be viewed by request to the museum.

Drawing of an illustrated manuscript of the Hispanic Society of America, Sevilla, 1585

The Hispanic Society Museum & Library:

A Second Spain in Uptown Manhattan
The collections of the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books at The Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York are among the most extensive outside Spain, containing more than 250,000 manuscripts, documents and letters dating from the 11th to 20th centuries, along with 30,000 books printed before 1830. In addition to rare books, the museum maintains a modern research library on the literature, fine arts, geography, history and cultures of Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the Philippines, now comprising over 300,000 volumes plus 1,500 periodicals dating from the 19th century up to the present. The museum is currently closed to the public while it undergoes renovations, making it the perfect time to rediscover the works of art in the adjacent library.

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