Thursday, August 21, 2008

Louvain: Furore teutonica diruta

One of the most infamous events of the First World War was the burning of the Library of Louvain during the German advance through Belgium in August 1914. During the 1920s the Library was painstakingly rebuilt through a combination of voluntary donations and restitutions made by Germany in fulfillment of part of their responsibilities in the Versailles Treaty.
A significant figure in this rebuilding was Cardinal Mercier, who lobbied hard, particularly in the United States. It was an American architect, Whitney Warren, who was awarded the design of the new library, and it was opened with some fanfare in July 1928. Although Warren’s design was applauded, one detail became a sticking point, an ornate balustrade that spelt out ‘Furore teutonica diruta, dono americano restituta’ (something like: “destroyed by Germanic fury, restored by American generosity”).
Although part of planning for the new library since its inception, and although the script was so baroque as to be almost unreadable, floods of protests were issued, as such a partisan statement began to be criticised by international players like President Hoover, the University’s Rector and even the Pope. Although Warren was adamant, the Rector had his way, removing the ornate balustrade and replacing it with wooden blanks in time for the opening ceremony. Now counter-protests began, among them one particularly stylish one by the former foreman of the library’s construction, one Edmond Felix Morren. With great dash, he climbed up on the roof and patiently broke every blank balustrade: hailed by police, he is said to have replied, “I am doing a job, and I am not quite finished.”

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