Photo: Edu Mendes
It is like a hidden treasure. But DO NOT hesitate to enter. You’ll feel like you’re in Harry Potter’s school.
It all started on 14 May 1837, at the home of Portuguese lawyer Dr. Antonio José Coelho Louzada, when 43 Portuguese immigrants, almost all political exiles, met up with the aim of promoting culture among the Portuguese community in Rio and preserving essential works of Portuguese literature. They decided to create this institution.
It is important to highlight the role of José Marcelino Rocha Cabral, a journalist and lawyer who, because of the “advanced ideas he openly professed” saw the need to leave Portugal, and in 1828 settled in Rio. He was the first president of the institution and Francisco Eduardo Alves Viana was responsible for drafting the first statutes.
It is the oldest association established by the Portuguese in Brazil after it achieved independence in 1822.
It reflected the patriotic feeling and aimed to bring together great works and, above all, unique and rare editions. In their search, they received many donations and bequests and the library collection contained about 33,000 volumes by 1860. For that reason, after having been housed in several buildings, it was decided it would be moved to a new home to accommodate all the wonderful works.
Therefore, between 1880 and 1887, the interior and exterior of this magnificent building were designed in the Neo-Manueline style. It is a style that evokes the exuberant Gothic-Renaissance style of the time of the Portuguese discoveries in the 15th century and is characterised by Islamic influences and nautical motifs. It was named thus because it coincided with the reign of King Manuel I.
Emperor Pedro II laid the first stone on 10 June 1880, and his daughter, Princess Isabel, inaugurated it on 10 September 1887.
The design of Portuguese architect Rafael da Silva Castro was inspired by the beautiful Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. The façade made of Lioz stone, a type of limestone extracted from the Sintra Mountains, was brought to Rio by boat after being created in Lisbon by sculptors Germano José Salle and Simões de Almeida.
The décor is a set of warheads, ribbing, rosettes and fine colonnades on the windows. The sculptures at the entrance represent Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Infante Dom Henrique and Vasco de Gama, as a tribute to the great Portuguese navigators and explorers of the era of the great discoveries, and Luis de Camões, one of the most important poets.
The medallions at the entrance represent other illustrious figures from Portuguese culture, such as Fernão Lopes, Gil Vicente, Alexandre Herculano and Almeida Garrett, whose role is to be the “eternal guardians of this temple of human knowledge”.
While everything inside is impressive and striking, the Reading Room in particular is a large central atrium lit during the day by the natural light that enters through the huge skylight with a delicately painted iron and glass structure. It was the first of its kind to be built in Brazil.
Staircases and iron and bronze railings, the majestic iron lamp in the middle of the room, huge bookshelves made of finely carved wood with golden ornaments and hundreds of books distributed in three main levels books give the room a unique atmosphere.
It also has an important collection of paintings by José Malhoa, Carlos Reis, Oswaldo Teixeira, Eduardo Malta and Henrique Medina.
It also features a masterpiece of goldsmithing and sculpture. A 1.7-metre high monument made of silver, ivory and black marble (the Altar of the Fatherland), created in Oporto in the prestigious Reis and Sons house by ourives, master carver António Maria Ribeiro, celebrates the era of the discoveries and maritime exploits of the Portuguese. You’ll see ships, surrounded by Neptune, Tritons and Nereids. It was a symbolic evocation that was inspired by The Lusiads by Camoes. In fact, if you look closely you’ll see lines from the poem on the masts of the ships. The centre features the figures of Prince Henry, Vasco de Gama, Cabral and Luis de Camoes. And at the top of the column, on the ornamental motifs, two symbolic figures represent the two rivers of the East conquered by the Portuguese: the Indus and the Ganges. And, of course, the top features the image of faith with the cross.
This work was part of the exhibition of the Portuguese Pavilion at the World Expo held in Rio de Janeiro in 1922 and was acquired in1923 by the Royal Reading Room.
This wonderful collection is open and available to anyone who enters, since the library was made public in 1900. In the 1940s, the Institute of High Culture was opened to promote cultural exchange between Brazil and Portugal. And in 1969, the Study Centre was created to allow university professors to give lectures and courses.
What started as a private library to promote knowledge of Portuguese culture has today become the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal.
And its physical beauty is supported by its cultural significance: it currently contains 350,000 national and foreign volumes. Among them are thousands of curious and rare books, first editions and manuscripts. Above all, there are unique works from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as a copy of the “princeps” edition of The Lusiadas, written by Luis de Camões. A princeps edition is the first printed edition of a work, immediately following the author’s manuscript.
There are also several original manuscripts by various authors, such as the manuscript of the comedy Tú, sólo tú, puro amor by the Brazilian playwright Hacha de Assis and the manuscript of Amor de Perdiçâo by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco.
The Study Centre is still fully operational, and one of its main study and research activities focuses on Portuguese-Brazilian relations.
The library of the Royal Portuguese Reading Room is one of the cultural treasures of Brazil, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. And since July 2014, the library was ranked fourth out of the 20 most beautiful libraries in the world, according to Time magazine. The publication highlighted its history, architecture and rich collection of Portuguese works.