Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World

An Exhibition at The New York Public Library, 14 Oct 00–27 Jan 01

Thomas More, knight or saint, would be astounded that this collaboration between two of the world’s great libraries – France’s Bibliotheque Nationale and New York’s Public Library - takes its title from the joke he coined for his fantasy.

Covering a theme that links Plato to Marx, St John’s Apocalypse to St Augustine’s City of God, Geoffrey Chaucer to Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver and Candide, Winstanley’s Diggers to Robert Owen’s New Lanark Mills, the exhibition culminates in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. More’s irreverent book – which proposed that married couples view each other naked before their vows as who would buy a horse covered by a saddle? – is almost swamped in a wave of idealism. In his Utopia the tale is told by an imaginary seaman, returned from America Vespucci’s voyages: adjacent to a first edition of Utopia (Louvain, 1516) lies the 1503 Mundus Novus of Vespucci, which conclusively argues that the coast he had found (now Brazil) was neither China or India but a ‘New World’. The rest is history.

Utopia, written in Latin, was an international best seller quickly translated into many European languages, but not published in English until 1551. As for the Bible, English was considered ‘too rude’.

Mary Clow, Nov.2000

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