‘Libraries as a whole are a marvel – a marvel because they present, within a relatively small space, the world as it is, as it was and how it (possibly) will be, as well as how it should be and could be,’ writes Georg Ruppelt in the introduction of The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries. In the near-600 page book, Florence-based photographer Massimo Listri travels far and wide to find the oldest, most extravagant, opulent and beautiful libraries in the world, from Eastern Europe to America. Here is our pick of the best…
The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries
Library of Trinity College Dublin
Characterised by two-floors of floor-to-ceiling wood panelled bookshelves, this immense library was Ireland’s first, and has certainly earned its spot as one of the world’s most beautiful libraries. The library looks particularly striking when daylight strikes, and natural light floods the shelves. Brimming with history, busts of famous scholars and thinkers are placed throughout; you can book to see the Book of Kells and its exhibition, as well as its many seasonal exhibitions which highlight Irish literary traditions.
Baroque Library, Klementinum
Prague, Czech Republic
Opened as part of the Jesuit university in 1722, Baroque library is known for its vast collection of foreign theological literature; many of its books were sent from abolished monastic libraries. Boasting stunning religious-centred interiors, there’s ceiling frescos, portraits of Jesuit saints, patrons of the university and prominent representatives. It now stands as one of the Czech Republic’s national libraries.
The Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, which dates back further than 1148, was originally founded as a monastic library. Although the library survived the tumultuous years of the Revolution, the abbey it was part of was dissolved and turned into a school. During the 18th century a new abbey church was re-built, which became the famous Panthéon, located opposite Sainte-Geneviève Library. The current library building, opened in 1851, was created by architect Henri Labrouste. Today, it remains one of the world’s most beautiful libraries, functioning as the university library for Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne university, holding around 2 million documents. With its grand marble entrance hall and majestic two-storey reading room complete with a cast iron ceiling, it certainly deserves its spot on the list.
Biblioteca do Convento de Mafra
The Biblioteca do Convento de Mafra is located in the pretty town of Mafra in Lisbon, occupying the most prestigious room Portugal’s national palace. Founded in the early 18th century, the 90-metre long library it is known to be one of the most significant Enlightenment libraries in Europe. Its Baroque interiors are grand and beautiful, with floor covered with rose, grey and white marble tiles and wooden bookshelves situated in two rows, containing over 36,000 leather-bound volumes.
Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen
St. Gallen, Switzerland
Founded in the 7th century by the Irish monk Gallus, the Abbey Library of St. Gall is one of the oldest working libraries in the world. Its rich, Rococo ornamentation comes from its 18th century remodelling by architect Peter Thumb. Across the centuries, the library has collected over 150,000 pieces of work, including a number of manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Some of its most notable works include the St. Gall Cantatorium, a 10th century cantatorium (a collection of chants for Mass), regarded to be the earliest known complete music manuscript in the world, and the 4th/5th century Vergilius Sangallensis, which contains Virgil’s Aeneid, Georgics, and Eclogues.
Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
The Vatican Library has its roots in the 4th century CE, though the building as it stands today dates back to the 16th century when Sixtus V commissioned architect Domenico Fontana to construct a new building for its collection of 20,000 volumes. The grand library contains an enormous amount of books, manuscripts and prints spanning much of human history, as well as the oldest known manuscript of the Bible.
‘Like our understanding, spaces too should be filled with light,’ said Austrian master builder Josef Hueber, who was tasked with the construction of Austria’s Admont Abbey back in the 18th century. The largest monastic library in the world, Austria’s Admont Abbey dates back to 1074, but the late Baroque library hall as it stands today was completed in 1764 after being commissioned by Abbot Matthäus Offner. The spirit of the Enlightenment can be seen in the seven ceiling frescoes which showcase the various phases of human understanding, as well in the natural light that floods into the magnificent main room of the beautiful library. Over the years Admont Abbey has collected over 70,000 volumes including 1,400 precious manuscripts, with more than half dating back to the Middle Ages – and some as far back as the 8th century.
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Sandwiched in between graffiti-tagged buildings in downtown Rio is the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, characterised by its meticulously carved wooden interiors. Founded in 1837 by a group of Portuguese immigrants, the institution’s initial purpose was to promote culture amongst the Portuguese community. Nowadays it’s more like a palace devoted to books: the reading room houses more than 350,000 works, as well as a small collection of paintings, sculptures and ancient coins.
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Featured image: Main chamber of the Old Library, the Long Room. Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.