The "Atlas" facade of 1788, proposed by architect Etienne-Louis Boullée for the Bibliothèque du Roi in Paris, has long been regarded as a spectacular yet enigmatic work. This essay identifies the giant globe, supported by two muscular atlantes, flanking the library's main portal as an actual object, drawn more or less to scale, made by Vincenzo Maria Coronelli for Louis XIV in 1683. Along with a terrestrial globe of equally astonishing dimensions, the celestial globe was housed in the Bibliothèque du Roi for most of the eighteenth century. The fate of these globes was intertwined with the specific development of the Bibliothèque du Roi, as well as with the general emergence of "library," "museum," and "academy" as modern institutions of publicly held knowledge. By foregrounding the celestial globe, Boullée not only celebrated le siècle de Louis-le-Grand but also signaled the major contributions made by Babylon, Chaldea, and Egypt to Greek astronomy and to Western thought as a whole. Raphael's School of Athens, a painting to which Boullée's interior view of the Bibliothèque du Roi famously referred, had made a similar point about the potent blend of Eastern occult wisdom and European scientific methods through the memorable motif of globes. The approach here is iconographic. The symbols of the "Atlas" façade serve as a point of departure for examining the representational systems of the fine arts and the observational sciences and lead ultimately to a school of "universal" knowledge that was built into Boullée's vision of this library.
- Copyright 1998 The Society of Architectural Historians