Sumptuous golds, exotic woods, frescoes and thousands of rare and old books, arranged on shelves up to the ceiling. In the Johannine Library of the University of Coimbra, one breathes the history of the king who ruled the great Portuguese empire in the 18th century.
Here thousands of books rest, some of which are unique in the world. The Johannine Library , previously called Casa da Livraria, began to be erected in 1717, in the middle of the century of Enlightenment, at the behest of D. João V (1689-1750), the Portuguese king who privileged knowledge and who promoted a cultural policy without parallel across the country.
In the long reign of 43 years, one of the greatest in the history of Portugal, the monarch, who had ascended the throne at the age of 17, cultivates a taste for the arts, science and literature. With the coffers of the kingdom full of gold from the new deposits discovered in Brazil, the young monarch develops at the same time a certain appetite for splendour and for luxury: his idol is Louis XIV, the sun king.
On a regal initiative, emblematic works were made such as the Mafra Convent, the Águas Livres Aqueduct, the Royal History Academy, the Prototype Lusitanian Surgical Academy and this Library, a unique Baroque masterpiece, built by the best masters in fresco painting, gilders and carvers.
Three hundred years later, this library is considered the most beautiful University Library in the world, with an invaluable collection of incalculable value. It is visited every year by 200 thousand people, even more after the University of Coimbra was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.
The portrait of D. João V, the patron of the work, is highlighted on one of the main walls of the building in Baroque style.
The library was ordered to be built by D. João V, as well as the Library of the Convent of Mafra, which is also considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The University of Coimbra began to be built in 1717.
The rector at the time asked the King for a place to keep a library that was for sale. D. João V was not limited to building a mere library. He hired specialists and the three-story building is a symbol of a country that at the time broke with obscurantism and bet on knowledge and the arts.
The library has over 60 thousand volumes and has books published until the year 1800. The oldest is a bible from 1140, from the time of D. Afonso Henriques. The bible has four volumes and is made of leather. It is estimated that about a thousand animals have been slaughtered to do this. The library has several treasures such as the first edition of the Lusíadas, an Hebrew bible and some manuscripts, such as Almeida Garrett. These treasures are kept in the other building of the General Library that started operating in 1962. It is also in this structure that the works of the Joanine Library are consulted. About 800 volumes are requested per year for consultation.
The library is open for consultation by any citizen, but its activity, since its foundation, has been directed to the academic community.
The Bats. At first glance, you may think that these animals are a problem for the Johannine Library of the University of Coimbra. However, the bats that live there, occupying the space behind the shelves during the day and diving into the arched ceilings when the sun goes down, are not a problem.
On the contrary. The bats play a vital role in preserving the institution’s manuscripts, so much so that librarians are in no hurry to get rid of these animals.
The bats that live in the Johannine Library do not damage books and, since they are night owls, they generally do not disturb visitors who enter the library to be carried away by its charms.
In fact, the greatest danger to the book collection is the insect population. It is known that many species of insects gnaw on the paper, which can be a real danger for the very rare books that live in that library in Coimbra, which date before the 19th century.
It is in this tragic part of the narrative that bats enter, but not as villains. They are the true heroes who, at night, feed on insects, preventing them from spoiling the collection.
However, although bats are not a threat, there is a particular concern: faeces. To protect the estate, librarians cover 18th-century tables with fabric made of animal skin at night, and clean the floors every morning