The Lost Library of the King of Portugal: A Review – by Kirsten Schultz

Angela Delaforce, The Lost Library of the King of Portugal (London: Ad Ilissvm/Paul Holberton Publishing, 2019), ISBN: 978191268156

In The Lost Library of the King of Portugal Angela Delaforce invokes in vivid detail the material dimensions of early modern libraries. Libraries, she reminds us, are both collections of books and the spaces where those collections are stored and organized, often sumptuously decorated and furnished. They are defined by programs of acquisition, collection, and use. As the book’s title suggests, Delaforce is especially interested in one library, that of a Portuguese king, and in a materiality that took shape over several decades and then, in one day, came to an end in rubble, water and fire. As was the case with much of the city of Lisbon following an earthquake off Portugal’s coast on All Saints Day, November 1, 1755, João V’s palace at the Tagus River’s edge suffered catastrophic damage (Fig. 1). While the Paço da Ribeira’s external structure survived the earthquake and tsunami, according to one contemporary account, its ceilings collapsed and its interior was engulfed in flames that destroyed many of the thousands of books, manuscripts, scientific instruments and natural history specimens that had come to comprise one of the greatest libraries of early eighteenth-century Europe.

Fig. 1. Artist unknown, “Lisbone Abysmée,” ca.1760, Etching. Image in the public domain. Image source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Painstakingly researched and lavishly illustrated, Delaforce’s Lost Library reconstructs both the royal library and the political and intellectual cultures that shaped the king’s vision of book collection. The book traces both the library’s medieval and early modern origins and its ties to broader European intellectual exchanges, royal patronage of the arts and sciences, and Portuguese diplomacy. In doing so, it contributes to a recent historiography on Portuguese engagement with an early modern cosmopolitan Republic of Letters.[1] A historian of the Portuguese Baroque, Delaforce brings to bear her extensive knowledge of art and patronage in eighteenth-century Portugal examined previously in her contribution to the exhibition catalogue for “The Age of the Baroque in Portugal” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1993-1994) and, more recently, in the authoritative Art and Patronage in Eighteenth-Century Portugal.[2]

Dom João V, born in 1689, celebrated his acclamation as “King of Portugal and the Algarve, of this side and beyond the sea in Africa, Lord of Guinea, and the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India etc.” on January 1, 1707. As many historians have argued, his reign was literally and figuratively a golden age. Wealth generated from the copious deposits of gold discovered in the Brazilian hinterland at the end of the seventeenth century flowed into Portugal’s commercial networks and the royal coffers that reinvigorated royal splendor. As Delaforce explains, while the king’s patronage of the arts and sciences reflected broadly-held notions of the interdependence of power and knowledge, it was also personal. The king, known to be brooding and melancholic, started taking refuge in reading at an early age and demonstrated a genuine curiosity and interest in learning. His patronage also followed in the steps of predecessors, including Manuel I, whose reign (1495-1521), celebrated as a glorious era of conquest and commercial expansion, coincided with the beginning of print in Portugal and nurtured engagement with humanistic learning. During the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs (1580-1640), royal collections of books and manuscripts continued to grow as did the libraries of Portuguese noble families. The collection of the Fifth Duke of Bragança, Theodósio I (1510-1563), was one of the largest in Europe at the time. When the Eighth Duke of Bragança, Dom João, successfully challenged Spanish rule, his family’s culture of learning and book collecting fused with that of earlier royal courts. As king, João IV (r.1640-1656) transferred much of the library of the ducal palace at Vila Viçosa in Alentejo to the Paço da Ribeira in Lisbon and continued to acquire books through agents in Northern Europe.

Building on both earlier royal and Bragança foundations, João V set out to create a new royal library at the beginning of his reign. By 1712, a royal librarian was at work reorganizing the palace library. The king took interest in all aspects of the endeavor including the art of printing and binding books. He enlisted Portuguese diplomats and royal officials posted across Europe, especially in Paris, Amsterdam and The Hague. While attending to negotiations at Utrecht to end the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), João Gomes da Silva, the Fourth Conde de Tarouca, and Luís da Cunha, who spent much of his diplomatic career in Paris, assumed responsibilities of identifying books and manuscripts and negotiating their acquisition. In the 1720s, Da Cunha surveyed the transcripts of original documents from the library of Germain Louis de Chauvelin (1685-1762), President of the Paris Parlement, and supervised extensive purchases from the library of the statesman Cardinal Guillaume Dubois (1656-1723), Archbishop of Cambrai. The king also acquired items from Dutch and English collectors. Delaforce dedicates an entire chapter to the Biblioteca Sunderlandiana, a collection of 20,000 printed books and manuscripts including incunabula belonging to Charles Spencer, Third Earl of Sunderland, and to the negotiations that resulted in the Portuguese acquisition of his manuscripts. João V was also determined to amass an exceptional collection of prints. In 1725 he requested every print made in Italy since the origins of printmaking, while from Paris Da Cunha sent over a hundred albums. The result, Delaforce concludes, was a “visual record of every aspect of European art, architecture, the decorative arts and design” (119).

Both the king and his agents envisioned the outcome of these acquisitions as more than a monument to human knowledge. While the king cultivated his own interest in learning, the library’s manuscripts, books, maps and scientific instruments were intended to provide the Portuguese with superior knowledge of the places over which the crown claimed sovereignty. Indeed, at mid-century Da Cunha’s well-known acquisition and commissioning of maps gave the Portuguese an upper hand in negotiations with the Spanish over South American boundaries, while the acquisition of scientific instruments for the study of astronomy, cartography and navigation made the library into a laboratory.

Through royal patronage, the library was also attached to other scholarly endeavors. In the early 1720s the king founded a Cabinet of Natural History at the royal palace. The new Cabinet, inspired by Paris’s Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, promised to systematize the study of natural history in Portugal through the collection of specimens and books on natural history. According to Delaforce, the Cabinet’s design probably benefitted from the guidance of Charles-Frédéric Merveilleux, a Swiss naturalist, who visited Portugal twice in the 1720s. Around the same time, João V sanctioned the foundation of the Academia Real da História Portuguesa to write the secular and ecclesiastical history of Portugal and its “conquests,” as the monarchy’s territories beyond Europe were called. The founding members, many of whom worked on the organization of the royal library, were to write new histories by returning to sources, including the manuscripts and books found in the royal library. The Academia, in turn, sanctioned and supervised other collections, including that of ancient coins and medals, and the conservation of ancient sites and artifacts. In this endeavor the Portuguese were influenced by Francesco Bianchini, appointed by Pope Clement XI as superintendent of antiquities, who argued that archaeological evidence was a more reliable source for history than chronicles.

Fig. 2. Artist unknown, Paço da Ribeira, Lisbon, early eighteenth century. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

As books, manuscripts and instruments made their way to Lisbon, royal officials there were entrusted with creating the library as a physical space in the Paço da Ribeira (Fig. 2). Although the earthquake destroyed much of the physical evidence of what the library looked like, Delaforce uses contemporary correspondence to reconstruct some aspects of the library’s decoration, most notably a series of bronze busts purchased by Da Cunha in Paris. Extant records also indicate that the king sought information about library design from across Europe, instructing royal officials to report on types of wood used for shelves, the design of the cases, how to display instruments, and how to store books prohibited from circulating more widely. By the 1730s, as acquisitions outpaced shelf space, the royal collections were reorganized once again by the philosopher Martinho de Mendonça de Pina e Proença, a former tutor to the king’s brother.

Fig. 3. Biblioteca Joanina, University of Coimbra, Portugal. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Delaforce also carefully places the lost royal library in the context of João V’s patronage of other libraries that survive. Beginning in 1716, the king sponsored the construction of a library at the University of Coimbra, known today as the Biblioteca Joanina. Beyond a plain limestone façade, the library features frescoed ceilings and carved and gilded cases that make it “a glittering temple of books” (83) (Fig. 3). João V also invested in the construction of a palace-monastery at Mafra that includes a large library (Fig. 4), while in Lisbon he endowed the library of an Oratorian monastery.

Fig. 4. Library at the Palace-Convent of Mafra, Portugal. Image in the public domain. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

João V died in 1750 and so was spared the tragedy of November 1, 1755 and the destruction of his beloved library. Delaforce reports that what could be salvaged from the ravaged Paço da Ribeira was sent to temporary buildings in the small village of Ajuda near Lisbon, where the royal family took up residence. Efforts to rebuild the royal library were invigorated just a few years later when the Portuguese crown suppressed the Jesuit order in its territories (1759) and took possession of Jesuit property, including libraries. Later acquisitions from private libraries further replenished royal collections. Yet in the early nineteenth century the royal library faced another threat, this time in the form of a French army marching across Spain to occupy Portugal. When, in 1807, the royal family made the decision to leave Lisbon for Brazil, much of the reconstructed royal library housed at a new palace at Ajuda was packed up and taken to the quay. Although in the confused and frantic departure the library was left behind, in 1810 and 1811 large shipments of books and manuscripts made their way to the new royal court of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When the king, Dom João VI (r.1816-1826), returned to Portugal in 1821, much of the royal library stayed behind. Just a few years later, its manuscripts, books, maps and medals were on the table as Portugal negotiated its recognition of an independent Brazil. What the resulting treaty defined as Brazilian patrimony remained in Rio as the Biblioteca Imperial e Pública, later renamed the Biblioteca Nacional. The loss invoked in the title of this book thus took multiple and enduring forms (destruction, displacement and dismemberment) yet also bequeathed new sites of collection and exchange. Delaforce’s comprehensive research and the visual record of the Portuguese royal library included here make this book an important resource for understanding both eighteenth-century royal patronage and intellectual life.

Kirsten Schultz is Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University, NJ


[1] See, for example, Ana Cristina Araújo, A Cultura das Luzes em Portugal: Temas e Problemas (Lisbon: Livros Horizonte, 2003); and Maria Louro Berbera and K.A.E. Enenkel, Portuguese Humanism and the Republic of Letters (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

[2] Angela Delaforce, “‘This New Rome’: Dom João V of Portugal and Relations between Rome and Lisbon,” in The Age of the Baroque in Portugal, exhib. cat., ed. Jay A. Levenson (Washington, D.C./New Haven: National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 1993); Angela Delaforce, Art and Patronage in Eighteenth-Century Portugal (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


Cite this note as:  Kirsten Schultz, ” The Lost Library of the King of Portugal: A Review,” Journal18 (February 2020), http://www.journal18.org/4683.

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