The Finest Room in the World, Part I

Peabody Library in Baltimore (Photo: John Bilous/Dreamstime)
A tour of appreciation

A while back, Daniel Hannan jotted a fascinating tweet. (He is the English writer and politician, as you know.) A painting by Gainsborough, The Morning Walk, had been restored and returned to its display space: Room 34 of the National Gallery in London. This room contains British paintings from 1750 to 1850.

Hannan tweeted, “Arguably the finest room in the world.”

I did a little jotting of my own about this: What is the finest room in the world? There’s no answer, of course — it’s just fun. I mentioned the Main Reading Room in the Library of Congress (Jefferson Building). I have always liked it. Been wowed by it. I also put in a plug for the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. (This is a concert hall.) I further said that many rooms in the Topkapi Palace (Istanbul) could qualify.

What about your own room? I mean, the room you live in, the room you spend time in? “Why, sure,” I wrote. “Charity begins at home. And, more specifically, in the sanctity of our very own room, which should provide comfort and order — and, as a bonus, reflect a little beauty. A blessed asylum.”

Anyway, I asked readers to send me their nominations — their candidates and their thoughts. I’ll tell you what they said, in a loosely organized way.

Of course, I got responses such as, “Whatever room my wife and daughters are in.” That’s just the way it should be. One reader wrote, “Whatever room my dog, Leo, is in. (Rather surprised to learn there is some debate about this.)” I loved that.

I’d like to start with museums, however, because it was Dan Hannan’s comment on Room 34 that got this ball rolling.

One reader wrote, “Here’s a vote for the Rembrandt Room at the Hermitage.” Yes. Another reader wrote, “My nomination is the room at the Art Institute of Chicago containing Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper. After spending the entire day after the recent election in the museum — boy, did I need that — I came to the conclusion that, if a museum contained only that one work, it would still be one hell of a museum.”

This reader continues, “My second nomination would be the scoop shop in Babcock Hall at the University of Wisconsin, where Ph.D.-level ice cream is served. It also contains the only known representation of Buckey Badger smiling.”

See, art enters into that as well.

Another reader says, “My nomination is the Green Vault — Grünes Gewölbe — in Dresden. I saw this in 1966, when very, very few Americans had visited the so-called DDR. I have never been so astonished as I was by the superlative quality of workmanship and the ingenuity of these artifacts given to the Elector of Saxony. I particularly recall an entire battle scene carved inside a wooden ball a little larger than a golf ball.”

This reader adds, “As a young man, I worked for a few months in the old HEW building (300 Independence Ave., SW, if you recall) as a financial-management intern. Lunchtimes, I would walk to the National Gallery and spend the entire time in one room each day. You pick one, but my favorites were the Dutch and Flemish masters.”

Personally, I have always had a hard time distinguishing between Dutch and Flemish …

This was a long, detailed, idiosyncratic, and wonderful letter from a reader, which I will truncate:

Hello, Mr. Nordlinger!

“The finest room in the world”? I love this sort of question, especially because I’ve thought about this exact one before and know the answer. …

It’s Sala 12 in the Prado: the Velázquez Room. This is so because Velázquez is the greatest painter ever and Room 12 contains his greatest painting: Las Meninas.

As you approach Las Meninas for the first time, you begin to realize, as I did, that this painting, like certain Shakespeare plays, contains an answer to, or at least touches on, every question you could ever ask.

Does time exist? Are we nature or nurture? Do animals dream? Etc.

After looking at this extraordinary painting for a while, you might turn and survey the others in the room. Good God.

My favorite — favorite to the point where it’s a form of love — is the haunting Doña Antonia de Ipeñarrieta y Galdós and Her Son Don Luis.

So, “What’s the finest room in the world?” has an answer. And the answer’s not subjective at all. It’s really more like a math problem. Sala 12, Prado. Unless …

… it’s Sale 10/14 in the Uffizi — the Botticelli Room!

This room contains Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus — the first painting that ever attracted me. I was nine. It still does pretty much the same trick. But it also contains Botticelli’s even better — way better — Primavera. Goodness.

And on the wall opposite Primavera there are huge Ghirlandaios that offer the pleasurable illusion of seeing downtown Renaissance Florence as if you were paging through a photo spread in Condé Nast Traveler.

But the best painting in the room is on the far, far wall, opposite The Birth of Venus. And it’s not by Botticelli. It’s not even Italian! It’s the Portinari Triptych, a Nativity, by the Flemish master Hugo van der Goes. …

So, the finest room in the world? It’s either Sala 12 in the Prado or Sale 10/14 in the Uffizi — or Room 34 in the National Gallery, as Daniel Hannan says. I’ve never been there.

Before we leave museums, let’s visit another one — not an art museum but the Air and Space Museum, in Washington. A reader writes, “A few years ago, I would have suggested the Milestones of Flight Hall, but that was when the 1903 Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module were still there. (Even now, it’s quite impressive for us airplane nerds.)”

Many, many readers named libraries. Several of them named the Long Room in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. One reader wrote, “I have had the good fortune to breathe the air in that room on several occasions after paying my respects to the Book of Kells down below.”

A reader voted for a room of treasures at the British Library: with the manuscript of Messiah, opened to the Hallelujah Chorus. With a letter from Admiral Nelson to his wife on the day of the Battle of Trafalgar. With Shakespeare folios and Leonardo sketches and a Gutenberg Bible. And a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John.

“Truly an amazing room,” writes our reader.

Several people mentioned the Bodleian, at Oxford University. Sample: “At age 20, I did a year-abroad program. The main reading room of the Bodleian blew me away. I was in utter awe of the brains that hung in the air. Every library is full of the greatest thoughts ever thought, but nowhere else are they so palpable. It is something otherworldly.”

A reader put in a vote for the library of Admont Abbey in Austria. Another voted for the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, in Urbino. (Piero della Francesca painted a famous portrait of the gentleman.)

Come now to America. “I would have to say Jefferson’s library at Monticello. … The guy loved books. And he read all he acquired. A question for you: Would Jefferson have been Jefferson if he had lived during the time of television?”

Don’t know.

Here is a note from a professor of history:

On a sabbatical leave, I saw many great rooms on my journey to and along the East Coast, but the one which struck deepest was James Madison’s library in Montpelier. It’s not large nor much to look at, but I pass along to my students what the tour guide said about it. A paraphrase: “Before his 1787 meeting in Philadelphia, this is where Madison would seek knowledge about history, philosophy, and good government. It could easily be said that the Constitution was conceived in this room.”

Someone said J. P. Morgan’s library in New York. (Ahhh.) Someone else said, “Don’t forget the Peabody library in Baltimore!” No, never.

Two people wrote me about the Day Missions Library of the divinity school at Yale. One said, “I am sure there many rooms more elegant, but to my mind, this room is just marvelous. … To me, this is what a library room should look like. … I loved this room, and it was what I missed most after graduation and moving on in life.”

A reader wrote me about the Morrison Reading Room of the library at UC Berkeley. “Blessed peace and classical order. I’ll be hanging there today before the Noon Concert at Hertz Hall — another pretty good room!”

(It seems to me Berkeley needs all the peace and classical order it can get.)

A note from Iowa: “Consider the law library inside the capitol building in Des Moines. During the Iowa caucuses, one of the networks will often use this room as its broadcast position. The room has a balcony that overlooks downtown Des Moines.”

A different reader says, “Let me nominate, from lil’ ol’ Waco, Texas, on the campus of my alma mater, Baylor University, the Armstrong Browning Library. It is exquisite. It is a series of rooms rather than one room, but it’s my nomination, so there.”


Several readers named the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. One man said, “I leave for another day any debate about the renovation!”

Speaking of leaving for another day: We’re just getting started — and I’ll continue tomorrow, with our second and final installment.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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