About the Collection

LibraryCollectionsAbout the Collection

Four areas, five periods:

Martin Bodmer would eventually come to believe that creativity takes place in four areas of history or “spheres” of civilization and culture, namely, Power (Macht), which organizes society (the center of civilization); Art (Kunst), which covers the masterpieces of human culture; Science (Wissen), the systems and discoveries of the world, which pertain to the two previous areas; and Faith (Glaube), the sacred texts of religion, which transcend both. In the end, Martin Bodmer stressed a historical and symbolic structure based on the number five, arbitrary but anchored in our being. These are his five ages:

1. From the origins of humans to the Paleolithic (≈ 500 000 years ago)
Arms, tools, fire, tribes, graves.

2. The Neolithic (≈ 20 000 years ago): Art, magic, religion.

3. The Bronze and Iron Ages(5 000 years ago)
Cities, States, invention of writing. This period comprises the five advanced civilizations of the Yellow River (Huang He), the Indus, the Euphrates, the Nile, and the Islands of the Aegean Sea, which gave rise to Western civilization.

4. From the first quarter of the first millennium BCE
This period comprises the five historical civilizations of the written word, Sino-Japanese, Indo-Dravidian, Indo-Iranian, the Fertile Crescent, and the West, the counterpart of which is formed by the five civilizations that lacked a system of writing, i.e., Mexico, Peru, Africa, Malaysia, and Australasia.

5. The fifth age has begun
In which the written word is no longer the only means for communicating and preserving spiritual values, a situation brought about by the advent of electronic communications.

Chorus mysticus:

Martin Bodmer sought to make concrete the adventure of the human spirit throughout history in language as it has taken shape in some 80 literatures. However, as Hans E. Braun stresses, “Everything that has been transmitted to us by the written word stands out against the backdrop formed by unwritten speech. The modest 6 000 years of written tradition by means of cuneiform tablets, clay nails, ostraca, papyrus, jade, bronze, and more recent supports offer a stark contrast with the vast stretch of 170 million years represented in the Library by the first tokens of animal life on our planet—ichthyosaurs and other fossils—tokens that recall the evolution in which humans emerge from a dark night to become what they are today thanks to speech and the written word.”

But, as Martin Bodmer pointed out in the 1967 speech he gave in London entitled “The cultural and spiritual ideas behind the Bodmeriana, ”we must understand that “the human is contradictory, that humanity is commonly characterized by mediocrity, cruelty, and selfishness; that it is, in its very essence, antihuman. The miracle is that a small number of individuals, a drop of water in this ocean, eventually prevailed and embody history in the end.”

Chorus mysticus begins with Homer, Moses, Zarathustra, Mahavira Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Jesus. Five chronological periods can be distinguished:
1. Ancient Greece (8th c. BCE – 4th c. CE)
2. Ancient Rome (3rd c. BCE – 5th c. CE)
3. The Middle Ages (5th c. – 13th c.)
4. The Renaissance (14th c. – 17th c.)
5. Modern times (18th c. – 19th c.)

The “Poetic Pentagon” assumes a powerful symbolic value here.


A few words by Martin Bodmer:

“I sketched out the beginnings of this library, which goes back around 35 years, in the years when the First World War was raging. The quality of the editions then available was in keeping with the sad circumstances.

“Save for the famous Tempest, the editions of the Inferno, the Odyssey, and Faust were books worth 20 cents; to which you can add my little confirmation Bible—it was quite modest! Yet here was already the glorious ‘pentagon': Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, who has not been surpassed since and will not be. It was a matter of raising the quality and volume of elements representing it, nothing more, and adding to that core of ‘Weltliteratur’ the flowering that springs from it” (Fritz Ernst, Von Zürich nach Weimar, 1951, 16).

The material covers “all that human genius has expressed through language, and more than through language. It would be inconceivable to exclude music since we owe its conservation to written notation. This is likewise the case for the fine arts, thanks to illustration and description. How many monuments of antiquity would be lost to us were it not for eyewitness reports! Finally, we understand a great deal of the visible world thanks to minds that gradually opened the eyes of men.

“That holds for history as well. From Herodotus to Toynbee, history is the way in which we are shown it! And the natural sciences? Or simply science? When speaking of the Muses and erudition, let us not forget the enormous fields of thought and faith, philosophical research and religion. The whole of this is ‘Weltliteratur’” (Von Zürich, 17)

A few words by Bernard Gagnebin:

On 31 January 1971, Bernard Gagnebin, the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Geneva (1962 – 1974), wrote this letter to Martin Bodmer:

“Dear Sir and friend,

“Thank you for allowing me another look at your Balzac manuscripts, those five stories making up part of ‘Scenes of Private Life’, which are themselves a fragment of the immense ‘Human Comedy’. You queried me once about the situation peculiar to French literature of not having a crowning writer, no Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe, and you asked me if I considered Balzac the greatest figure in French literature.

“Today my answer is still no. Rousseau and Voltaire are also great and perhaps even greater, and Flaubert and Montaigne, Baudelaire, and Proust. It is a feature of French literature that it is multifaceted.

“On this occasion allow me to tell you once again how much I admired the Library you have created, expanded, enriched, and classified with such care and for so many years. It is truly something unique in our world, which is dominated by the technical, science, and profit. It is an exceptional venue that you have installed in Cologny in the shade of pine, cedar, and chestnut trees.

“It must continue to exist long into the future and must be the rallying point for all those who still believe in the superiority of the mind over matter, who refuse to allow themselves to be caught up in materialism and the easy way out. The collection that you have brought together gives an extraordinary idea of the human adventure or more precisely the grandeur of man.

“It is in Cologny that one can follow man’s efforts to discover the world, to communicate with his fellow men through language, art, and literature, to invent writing, papyrus, parchment and soon after paper and typography, in order to gradually win greater understanding, wisdom, humanity.

“This is the reason why I sincerely wish that you may long direct this unique work and be the driving force behind this admirable collection. I wish you a quick recovery for you are dear to us in so many respects.

“Please extend our warmest greetings to Mrs. Bodmer.

“Yours most faithfully and devotedly…”


Martin Bodmer, on artmaking:

“Of all human creations, the work of art seems to be the furthest from Nature. That is not at all the case. On the contrary, it is the continuation and perfection of Nature through the mind and signifies a victory over matter; any and every achievement of the mind creates an opening toward the divine. The Bodmeriana strives to evoke that, all of that.”