1 September 2022 Susannah

Book Addict Visits a Library – Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra, Portugal

Biblioteca Joanina at the University Square

This month my friend and fellow bibliophile, Chris Browne, has kindly sent me the following on one of his favourite libraries.

Coimbra is a beautiful royal city in central Portugal. The old city, on top of a steep hill with stunning views, contains at its heart, the University of Coimbra, which was formerly one of the royal palaces of Portugal. The University of Coimbra, which originated in Lisbon in the mid-13th century, is one of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world. While the whole precinct is a World Heritage site, the jewel in the crown is the Biblioteca Joanina, usually called The Joanine Library in English. It is arguably the most beautiful library in the world. The library is named for its founder and main benefactor, King John V of Portugal, who started construction of the building in 1717, leading to its opening as a library in 1750.

When my wife and I visited Coimbra and the Biblioteca Joanina in October 2017, we stayed at a former royal hunting lodge, now the beautiful Hotel Quinta das Lagrimas below the city. The Duke of Wellington is said to have stayed there during the Peninsula War and to have planted a tree which still stands. The 40-minute walk from the hotel along the riverside to the old city was very pleasant. The climb up to the university at the top of the hill was steep going, along winding cobbled streets. The University covers the whole summit of the hill. You walk past some brutalist-style university buildings from the fascist era until you come to the university’s central plaza, surrounded by historic buildings which were once the royal palace. On the far side of the plaza, you will see the ornamental formal entrance to the Biblioteca Joanina.

In order to enter the library, you must first buy a ticket for a guided tour, and then descend to the lower level of the library building. Interestingly, you enter the library through the University Jail! Now at Oxford, McGill and Monash, where I spent most of my academic career, there were no university jails, but I must say I can recall a few students who might have benefitted from a few days in jail. The library tour takes you up from the jail into the main floor of the three-storey library, where you find yourself in a magnificent baroque room fitted with huge bookcases made from exotic tropical hardwoods, topped with ornate decorations. In every direction there are stunning views.

The library building was constructed with 2-metre-thick stone walls, which ensure constant temperature and humidity, ideal for the preservation of the more than 200,000 volumes of the library, many of which are rarities from the 16th to 19th centuries. The doors of the bookcases are mostly covered with a wire mesh, which allows air to circulate around the books; this helps to prevent mould and rot, always a problem with older leather bindings. After your allotted time, you exit the library through the formal entrance. One drawback of having the books exposed to air is that insects and other pests could cause damage to the books. The Biblioteca Joanina avoids this problem by hosting its own colony of bats, which roost in the roof space and emerge every night to keep the insect population under control. The bats are unable to penetrate the wire mesh on the bookcases and damage the books. Library attendants arrange leather covers over the tables and desks in the library each evening and then remove the covers and clean up the bat guano each morning. The library is lined with impressive oak panelling, which also deters many insects. The Biblioteca Joanina is one of only two libraries in the world to house a bat colony (the other is Mafra Palace Library in Portugal, also constructed by King John V).

When you visit, do spend some time in the rest of the historic part of the university. Do see the extraordinary Grand Examination Room, with portraits of Portuguese notables lining the walls and an ornate decorated ceiling. The Sao Miguel Chapel, next to the tower is also well worth visiting. We only had two days at Coimbra, but could have easily stayed longer.

Professor Chris Browne, July 2022

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Featured image credit- Biblioteca Joanina at the University Square, By Chris – University Square, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11056087
Body image- One of the reading desks at Biblioteca Joanina, by Trishhhh – Flickr: DSC_5156, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17696833
Body image- Fresco at Biblioteca Joanina, by xiquinhosilva from Cacau – 94998-Coimbra, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83976184
Body image- Domenico Duprà portrait of King John V of Portugal at Biblioteca Joanina, by Wirdung – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15840905

Comments (12)

  1. Professor Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah from Langkawi, Malaysia

    If I could make a comment on my own article…

    The other great book building in Portugal is the Livraria Lello in Porto, on Rua das Carmelitas, close to the university. It is often described as the most beautiful bookshop in the world. The building has a gothic exterior which, on entry, reveals a wonderful, visually stunning, Art Nouveau interior. It has sinuously curving staircases which are said to have inspired J.K. Rowling’s constantly shifting staircases in Hogwarts. Rowling would have known it well from her time in Porto as an English teacher.
    Sadly, because of its immense popularity with the Harry Potter Fandom, there is now almost always a queue for entry as well as an entry charge, which is refunded if you go mad and buy a book! I know of no other retail bookshop in the world which can charge for entry.
    Another place for your bucket list, Susannah, but good luck trying to get a tour group in there.

    Best wishes

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh wow, Chris, thanks for telling me about that. How amazing that there is a bookshop that charges for entry and all because of Harry Potter.
      Your article on the library has brought back good memories for quite a few of my newsletter readers. Thanks again for such a great contribution, and happy travels!

  2. Jessica Milner Davis

    A very special place to visit, I agree. One memorably wet day I made it there with my husband and we enjoyed it immensely. Susannah: a series on great libraries of the world would perhaps be worthy of your talents? This is certainly one; and the sadly vanished old Reading Room of the British Library where I wrote part of my thesis in 1966-7 another — although the new BL probably makes the list too. The Library at Trinity College Dublin I think you’ve written about before and its Book of Kells. But what about the exquisite Library at All Souls College Oxford — amazingly student-free as is the whole College except for the two paid students who get paid to chant the daily Evensong responses on behalf of the wretchedly absent Fellows who couldn’t be bothered to carry out their historic duties. And I’m sure other readers will add to the list…..

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There are so many wonderful libraries around the world, and they need to be cherished and preserved. A talk on great libraries is a good idea – I just need more time in my life at the moment. That’s terrible about the All Souls library – thanks for letting me know.

  3. Maria

    What a lovely article and the accompanying photos are splendid. The insect control system is unusual but very sustainable!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so grateful to my book-loving friend Chris for contributing the article about the library. Yes, most unusual insect control, but obviously effective.

  4. Andrea Witcomb

    My father was an English academic at the University of Coimbra. I have very fond memories of going there as a child, visiting the library, and going to organ recitals at the chapel, There was also the room, covered in blue and white tiles where I think they gathered for graduations – not quite sure about that. It was in the days before formal tours and tickets to enter. So I did walk in and out through the front door. I remember each of the three rooms had a different colour in all the leather fittings. And those large tables, where people would sit and work. It was and is, a beautiful space. I loved the ladders used to reach the books. And yes, that hill going up to the university is quite something – better to walk down it!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh what lovely memories and fancy having the freedom to wander around the various rooms!

  5. Rosemary Witcomb

    I have been in this library many times, as I lived in Coimbra from 1963 to October 1978 when i returned to Australia with my 4 children, all born in Coimbra. My husband , Kenneth Witcomb , was a professor in the university for about 36 years and was passionately fond of Portugal and its people.
    The excavations that have taken place in recent times under the Museum Machado de Castro are also very interesting.
    My daughter, Andrea, had Roman ruins underneath her Primary school.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How fascinating about the excavations, and what a wonderful place to live for some years. I’ve only had one visit to Portugal and that was a long time ago. I must go back!

  6. MJM

    Yes, indeed, a wonderful library, and indeed all of Coimbra. We also attended a fado concert in the town which was one of our special memories.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have not visited it, but my friend Chris’s fabulous article on it has certianly inspired me with a strong desire to go there.

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