The Bodmer Lab, a Participatory Project
In the spirit of open collaboration which permeates the Bodmer Lab project, a call for contributions has been announced by the French Autograph Manuscripts Constellation, seeking collaborations with all the members of the Faculty of Letters. This “crowdsourcing” project seeks to produce descriptive catalogue notices for the author manuscripts held at the Martin Bodmer Foundation.
These research endeavours will also make it possible to follow the historical circulation of these exceptional manuscripts from their authors to the present day. This call for contributions provides the opportunity for the French Autograph Manuscripts Constellation to show a first sample of its previously unpublished research: site visitors can follow the circulation of a letter written by Corneille, the only privately-owned handwritten document from the legendary dramaturge.
Sample Document: A Letter Written by Corneille
This letter from Corneille held at the Martin Bodmer Foundation is the only autograph manuscript from this author held privately. The research conducted by the Bodmer Lab first consisted of creating the most precise and exhaustive descriptive listing possible.
This research also enabled us to reconstruct the travels and provenance of manuscripts, from their author up to the present day. From these studies, not yet published, we are offering a preview with this letter by Corneille, from the eighteenth century to our time, from the Jesuit bookshop at the Collège de Clermont (now Paris’ Lycée Louis-le-Grand) to its purchase by Martin Bodmer.
After the suppression of the Jesuit order in France (1764), the letter was kept with other rare documents in the office of the Collège’s librarian, Gabriel Brotier (1723-1789).
His nephew, mathematician and philologist André-Charles Brotier (1751-1798) inherited the collection during the French Revolution. As a royalist, the younger Brotier was sentenced to deportation in 1797, under accusation of conspiracy against the Directory.
The documents, including the Corneille letter, were claimed by his lawyer, M. Lebon, as collateral against his legal fees. A few years after the death of his client, M. Lebon sought a seller capable of organising the sale of the manuscripts for the highest price. He was referred to a friend and close collaborator of the bibliophile Jean-Charles Brunet, the book dealer Jean-Pierre-Agnès Parison (1771-1855), who conducted an inventory of the most interesting pieces to be put up at auction.
The letter was then sold to Louise-Cordélia-Eucharis Greffulhe de Castellane (1796-1847), wife of the Maréchal de France, Boniface de Castellane, and lover of François-René de Chateaubriand.
When his collection was dispersed in April 1834, the manuscript was sold for 400 francs (no. 46 in the sale catalogue) to Parison, who knew its value from his own research, carried out on Lebon's behalf several years earlier. It remained in his possession until his death.
The letter was sold for 1000 francs lot n° 205) in 1856 to the merchant and collector Etienne Pierre Louis Chambry (1787-1871). His widow then kept the letter until 9 March 1881.
The Englishman Alfred Morrison (1821-1897) acquired it at that date for the sum of 4000 francs.
A copy of the Catalogue of the Renowned Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Manuscripts, Formed by the Late Alfred Morrison, Esq. of Fonthill, and Now the Property of Mrs. Alfred Morrison: The First Portion (London, 1917), held at the Library of Geneva (BGE Aa 1707, vol. I, p. 32, n° 251), contains, in the form of handwritten annotations, the selling price of each piece, as well as the names of the buyers. Thanks to the analysis of this source, we know that the manuscript was sold 11 December 1917 to the art dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons for 135 pounds sterling.
Arthur Meyer (1844-1924), then director of the French publication, Le Gaulois, likely bought the letter from the Agnew company and brought it back to France before 1921. His text, My Books, Drawings and Autographs [Mes livres, mes dessins, mes autographes] (Paris, 1921, p. 16, n° 62) refers to the letter as part of a set that also included two original drawings by Coraboeuf and Fournier, as well as an original edition of Corneille’s Horace.
This set was sold in June 1924 for 10,000 francs (lot n°66) to Christian Lazard (1880-1943), partner at the Lazard bank. He was murdered at Auschwitz 23 July 1943.
The Corneille letter remained with the Lazar family until Martin Bodmer acquired it on 19 May 1967 (lot n°13) in an auction at the Hôtel Drouot (Paris).