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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