Who would guess that Portugal has some of the most interesting and awe-inspiring spaces devoted to books? Porto is home to (what many consider to be) the most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello. Lisbon has one of the coolest and most popular bookstores, Ler Devegar. But, the University of Coimbra in Central Portugal is the location for one of the world’s grandest and unique libraries, the Biblioteca Joanina.
Since October 1537, the University of Coimbra has occupied buildings, which for over four centuries, was the Royal Palace of Coimbra. In 1717, King João V sponsored construction of the library as part of his wide-ranging efforts to promote artistic, cultural and scientific endeavors. The library receives its name from King João.
Architect Gaspar Ferreira designed the library in the Baroque style. It consists of three large salons with beautiful wooden bookstands. The doorways between the salons are decorated with coats of arms of the faculties.
Other important artists and craftsmen of the time contributed to the splendor of the library. Lisbon painters António Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes were responsible for the composition of the intricate allegories on the ceiling. Decorative artist Manuel da Silva was responsible for gilding and lacquering the shelves, producing a variety of motifs, some inspired by recent discoveries in the Orient. Italian cabinet-maker and wood-carver constructed the sumptuous bookshelves and large study tables using exotic woods brought from Brazil.
Housed inside are over 250,000 books, some handwritten, others printed, representing periods from 15th to 19th centuries. Among them are books on medicine, geography, history, humanistic studies, science, civil and canon law, philosophy and theology.
Some notable tomes include:
■ Latin Bible (1462)
■ The Bible Comprising the Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament (1622)
■ The Chronicle of Dom Afonso Henriques (15th Century)
■ Poetic Armorial (circa 1590)
■ Kreutterbuch dess Hochgelerten (1590)
■ Illustrations from the Rutters of Dom João de Castro (16th century)
■ Bandarra’s Ballads (1644)
■ Oaristos (1890)
■ Orpheu (1915)
Bilblioteca Joanina utilizes several intriguing techniques for maintaining their book collection. First, the external walls are 2.11 meters thick and the front door is made of teak. These elements work together to keep a the room temperature consistently between 18º and 20ºÇ. The shelves are made entirely of oak. Oak is known for its hard surface which is difficult for insects to bore into, and for odor which acts as a worm-repellent. Finally, library staff tell us a colony of bats live inside the walls of the library. The bats come out at night to feast on any potential book destroying insects.
The library is now considered a priceless national treasure of Portugal. For more information and to experience an interactive DVD of the library, visit the Biblioteca Joanina website.
Largo da Porta Férrea
Phone: +351 239 859 841
Fax: +351 239 827 135
1 November to 18 March: Weekdays – 9:00 to 17:30, Weekends – 10:00 to 16:00
19 March to 31 October: Everyday – 8:30 to 19:00
Closed 24, 25, 31 December and 1 January
€7.00 – general
€5.50 – students and 65+