Kinski Palace library contains wealth of information on French Revolution

Kinski Palace library, photo: archive of National Museum

In the world of advanced information technology there are still remnants of an era when all human knowledge was painstakingly collected in libraries that reflected the social status of their owners. Deep in the bowels of Kinski Palace, on Prague’s Old Town Square, the Kinski family library is preserved as it served the family for generations. Its administrator for the National Museum Richard Šípek took me around one of the two remaining palace libraries in the city.

Kinski Palace library,  photo: archive of National Museum
“This is the younger of the two remaining Prague palace libraries. It was founded in 1805 and it was established because in 1777 the old Kinski family library was presented as a gift to the newly-founded Prague University Library. As a result the family was left without a library which was unacceptable and that’s why Ferdinand Johann Kinski decided to establish a new one. So it happened that in 1805 Kinski bought more than 18,000 books and brought them to Prague.”

From around Europe?

“Well, actually from Manheim, this delivery of books was collected by a single person – by Fontaine, a bookseller in Manheim – who prepared an offer catalogue for Kinski who eventually made the purchase.”

So the library does not actually reflect the interests or literary tastes of the family?

“Actually it does, because I am sure that the ruling member of the Kinski family made clear where his taste and interest lay, so the new library was tailored according to his taste. In fact we have here an offer catalogue in which Kinski scratched the books that he did not want to buy, so he made a personal selection.”

“Kinski was interested in the French Revolution, but actually he collected those books not out of sympathy with the revolution but out of antipathy –he wanted to get to know his enemy, privately and closely.”

So what kind of books have we got here?

“We may say that the library resembles a typical aristocratic library of the time in that the books cover all human knowledge of the time.”

The right mix of everything, plus his own favourites?

“Yes, it is obvious that Kinski was interested in the natural sciences and politics and in the French Revolution, which may seem surprising, but actually he collected those books not out of sympathy with the revolution but out of antipathy –he wanted to get to know his enemy, privately and closely. And so that is why Fontaine purchased everything available on the subject –we have here an extensive collection not only of books on the French Revolution but volumes that contain all the declarations, announcements published by the National Convention of France during the revolution and in the years that followed.”

How is it that this is one of the two last remaining palace libraries in Prague? What happened to the others?

“Of course, there were many palace libraries in Prague. Some were moved to the country residences of the aristocracy and others were sold due to the fact that after the Ground Reform in 1918 many of the noble families got into financial difficulties. They lacked the money to maintain their living standard and administrate the houses they owned, so they started selling off some of their possessions, among others their libraries.”

Photo: archive of National Museum
So presumably the books would have ended up all around Europe?

“Some of them are scattered around Europe, some are preserved in Czech libraries.”

How come this one was preserved? Are the books very rare?

“Many of them are, because the library is, for the better part, French from the second half of the 18th century. Their value is not so much due to their age or date of publishing but due to the fact that they have been preserved in their original book bindings, not in the later leather book bindings as are so many others, but in the publisher’s binding which consists only of a sheet of paper. Usually this simple binding was later replaced by a leather one which was more durable.”

“The library was extended in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century and its Golden Age was probably in the first half of the 19th century during the time of Rudolf Kinski, who planned to turn the library into the first Czech national library. That’s why he purchased books in the Czech language, the old prints, but his dream was never fulfilled because he died as a young man. In the first half of the twentieth century –starting in 1936 –the Kinski family offered the library to the State Librarian School so the two halls in which we are now standing were full of students in those days.”

Kinski Palace library,  photo: archive of National Museum
And is the public allowed in here – are the books ever used?

“Yes, of course, when there is interest in them we move them to the reading room of the National Museum where they are available to the public, to scholars and so on.”

If we look around the wood, the décor of the library looks much younger than the Nostitz palace library – was this library restored recently?

“Yes, as was the whole Kinski Palace –it was restored during the 1990s and that is why it is in such good shape and also, the furniture here is much younger than in the Nostitz library.”

What about the busts that we see here? Are they original?

“Yes, their presence here is rather surprising - this is the kind of thing that I would expect in the Nostitz library, because it was a custom dating back to the Renaissance, going through the Baroque and until the 19th century. It was customary to decorate a library with paintings, sculptures, busts and such. Here we can see four busts – those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Schiller and Johan Wolfgang Goethe. “

Kinski Palace library,  photo: archive of National Museum
“And moving to the second hall of the library….”

We have a model of some building here…

“Yes, there are two models. This one is a paper model of the Palace Kinski we are now standing in and the second is a small chateau the so-called Letohradek Kinski.”

So they had models of their homes here in the library…

“Yes, and both were made by the Czech artist Antonin Langweil who later constructed a paper model of the whole of Prague. Before he started on his life’s work - the paper model of Prague – he needed to raise money and that is why he made these small models of the aristocratic houses of the time because when he presented them as a gift to the aristocratic families he usually got some money which he later used for his work on the paper model of Prague. ”

That’s amazing...

“And here we have a collection of plaster prints of seals. Collecting seals was quite popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, there are seals of bishops and archbishops, seals of kings, seals of the aristocratic families and so on. Unfortunately there is no list and today it is practically impossible to say who most of them belonged to.”

“Their value is not so much due to their age or date of publishing but due to the fact that they have been preserved in their original book bindings.”

So are all these books digitalized?

“No and neither are all the books in the Nostitz library. It would make no sense, because many of the books here are preserved in other copies all over the world and the only reason for their digitalization would be digitalizing the provenance records –the records of ownership and something that is unique about them. ”

What does your work here entail?

“Everything you can imagine relating to the administration of a library. We prepare the contracts when some books are to be loaned abroad, we catalogue the books, we keep them in good condition, control the humidity, the temperature, we provide digital copies of the books if they are needed and so on. ”

Is there any restorative work undertaken?

“Definitely there is. We have a special restoration laboratory in the museum where the books are repaired to keep them in good shape.”

When you work with these books, what does it give you?

Kinski Palace library,  photo: archive of National Museum
“My main field of interest are the provenance records. I am particularly interested in how people related to the books in their possession, what they felt when they were reading the books, what they were interested in, how they proclaimed ownership of the book to the outer world, the signs, the notes they put on it, how they cared for a book and everything relating to the reading culture of the time.”

For how long can these palace libraries –and the books in them – be preserved?

“It is hard to say, but it all depends on us, on whether we will pay them enough attention and take care of them.”