Silverfish fail to feast in a library gone batty
JUST to make us fully aware of the treat in store, we have to wait outside the library for our Portuguese guide. Time here is measured in centuries, not in fractions of an hour.
Finally the guide comes with the key and an apology in fractured English. He opens the heavy doors of the University of Coimbra’s baroque library which, as it is no longer in everyday use, is closed to casual visitors. A tour of the beautiful interior must be booked.
Coimbra was settled in Roman times and is now a pleasant university town sometimes referred to as the Oxford of Portugal. It lies 40km from the Atlantic on the Mondego River, between Portugal’s northern and southern borders.
The library is a designated national monument of Portugal. Opened in 1728, it was in its day one of the most famous libraries in Europe. It is two storeys high and as solid as a vault, with stone walls more than 2m thick and a pillared and arched entrance surmounted by the national coat of arms. The interior comprises three large rooms divided by painted arches, with elaborate ceilings and different colour schemes. These are like Aladdin’s caves, highly ornamented and exquisitely detailed, with every surface gilded or painted. The bookshelves are two storeys high, with a gallery halfway up.
Amid the extravagant decoration, the books seem almost like an afterthought. Scholars are welcome, but at arm’s length. If the reason for the scholars’ research is impressive enough, the books they request will be taken to the university’s general library and made available there.
This library seems more like an exquisite museum piece full of ancient secrets than a place where information is busily exchanged. Its books were bestsellers between the 16th and 18th centuries and cover subjects then taught at the university, including medicine, law, theology, science and the arts.
So much paper would be a feast indeed for munching insects such as silverfish. As a deterrent, the bookshelves are made of oak, a dense wood that allows insects few hiding places and, to extend their misery, gives out a worm-repellent odour.
If the smell hasn’t put them off, the insects’ worst enemy is a resident colony of bats. These are not the big variety but small creatures just centimetres long, of refined and delicate mien as you would expect in a library like this. The little bats emerge at night (from some mysterious place that is not explained to us) to feed on the insects that have managed to survive the oak. So the bats’ night droppings don’t damage the precious wood of the library tables, these are covered with leather towels each night and cleaned next morning.
Our guide’s English isn’t good but he conveys to us that he loves this library, becoming animated when telling us about the bats. He says little about the books. Bound richly in embossed and gilded leather, they fill the shelves. None is individually displayed. Nor are they locked away, and I resist an urge to pull one of the precious tomes from its ancient nook and open it.
To visit the library, also referred to as the Joanina Library, email email@example.com or book at the ticket office near the Graduates’ Hall (Sala dos Capelos) at the university.