Biblioteca Joanina – The Oldest Library in Portugal

The Biblioteca Joanina, also known as the Joanine Library, showcases the grandeur of baroque architecture and is located on the University of Coimbra campus. It is named after King John V of Portugal who started construction on the library all the way back in 1717, and it is currently home to over 200,000 volumes. These include books on medicine and geography, philosophy, science, historical documents, and priceless first editions.

The Joanine Library is registered as a national monument and embodies the intellectual spirit of Portugal. Its ornate interior and historical significance attract scholars and tourists to the amazing university campus in Coimbra.

Exterior of the Joanine Library, xiquinhosilva, Flickr

History

The Biblioteca Joanina was completed in 1728. It received its first books in 1750 and was part of the king’s effort to enrich the University of Coimbra during the Age of Enlightenment. His reign saw a golden age of arts and education in Portugal. The library was built over a former prison of the university, which highlights the transformation from a place of confinement to one of enlightenment. Over the centuries, it has become a symbol of the shift towards intellectual pursuit.

Significant for its role in academic and cultural development, the library has also preserved rare and ancient texts. It has survived wars, political changes, and the test of time. This resilience has cemented its place in Portugal’s history. The Biblioteca Joanina was used as the main University of Coimbra library from 1777 until the middle of the 20th century. The only way to see the library now is on a guided tour.  

Architecture

The Joanine Library is spread out over three floors. The Noble Floor stands out with its elaborate decor, featuring shelves and balconies adorned in gold against backgrounds of black, red, and green. This level’s design, with wood painted to mimic marble and two stories of oak shelves gilded in multiple colors, reflects a commitment to both beauty and scholarship. The black, gold, and green are divided into different parts of the Noble Floor, making the tour through the library even more dramatic. The library’s architecture is ingeniously crafted for book preservation. Its outer walls, over two meters thick, safeguard against moisture, temperature, and pests. Oak shelves deter insects with their dense, durable nature and distinctive odor.

The Middle Floor serves multiple historical functions, from housing guards for the adjacent academic prison to preserving ancient texts. Now part of the university’s tourist route, it showcases document exhibitions and retains its original, simpler aesthetic. Notably, stonemasons’ markings, each a personal “signature,” remain visible on the arch stones, highlighting the craftsmanship and labor involved in the library’s construction. The recent addition of stairs in the 19th century improved access.

The Joanine Library’s foundation also encompasses a medieval prison, a relic of the University’s era of self-governance, protected until 1834. This segment of the building, which once served as the Royal Palace prison, showcases medieval cells and structural changes made in 1782 under the Marquis of Pombal. Today, it stands as Portugal’s oldest preserved prison, a somber reminder of the university’s complex history and its enduring legacy.

Part of the beautiful ceiling in the Joanina Library, Antonio Lobo Mena, Flickr

Bats in the Library!

A mysterious and alluring aspect of the Biblioteca Joanina is its resident bat population. Yes, you read that right. Bats. Remarkably, for approximately 250 years, a family of bats have lived inside the library, providing natural pest control. By night, they feed on insects that could otherwise damage the books. Tables are shielded with leather every evening to protect against damage from the bats’ droppings.

Visiting Times & Tickets

Tours of the Joanine Library run from 9:00 am-4:40 pm every day, except Mondays where tours start from 10:00 am. Only guided tours are available and the most basic tour lasts about 1.5 hours. The last admission starts 15 minutes before closing time.

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