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Everything You Need to Know About the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading

Sure, it’s officially known as the Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading, but we like to think of it as the Jewelry Box. With a stained-glass dome, floor-to-ceiling shelves that soar three stories, and jewel-toned book spines guarded over by Portuguese luminaries, this is the fantastical library of our dreams.

A Portuguese colony since 1500, Brazil gained its independence in 1822. But a group of 43 Portuguese immigrants and political refugees wanted to preserve their written heritage. The collection they started is now the largest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal. The almost 400,000 volumes include rare original manuscripts, significant literary works, and unique folios. We can only assume the book smell is overwhelmingly awesome.

This Gothic fantasyland was designed by architect Rafael da Silva e Castro. He made a cast-iron skylight and chandelier the crowning centerpiece of the Reading Room. The graduated stacks of books and gilded arches point like arrows toward the delicate glasswork above. (Underneath your feet, you’ll find a black-and-white tiled floor.)

stained glass ceiling in the royal portuguese reading room
Photo courtesy of Donatas Dabravolskas/Shutterstock.

 

gilt-edged bookshelves in the royal portuguese reading room
photo courtesy of Vanessa Rung/Shutterstock

Statues depicting important Portuguese figures are tucked into nooks in the room, like this one of Luís de Camões. He is considered the Portuguese language’s greatest poet and is often (favorably) compared to Shakespeare and Homer. His most famous work is the epic poem Os Lusíadas, which was so influential, Portuguese is sometimes called ‘the language of Camões.’ A centerpiece of the library’s collection is a rare copy of Os Lusíadas from 1572.

bust of luís de camões in the royal portuguese reading room
photo courtesy of Felipe Restrepo Acosta

The façade of the library is constructed of Lisbon stone brought by ship from Portugal to Rio. Built in the Neo-Manueline revival style — based on the 16th-century architecture of Portugal — its design was inspired by the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. (The interior also uses the Neo-Manueline style on its towering wooden bookcases and memorial alcoves.)

facade of the royal portuguese reading room
photo courtesy of Odair Bernardo

The entrance to The Royal Cabinet features statues of explorers Pedro Álvares Cabral, Infante D. Henrique, Vasco da Gama, and Luís de Camões. On the left is Infante D. Henrique, a.k.a., Prince Henry the Navigator — and peaking out from behind the statue of Luís de Camões, bedecked in a laurel wreath in the foreground, is Vasco da Gama.

bust and statue of luis de camoes at the royal portuguese reading room
Photo courtesy of Alejandro.

Here, poet Luís de Camões (left) and Prince Henry the Navigator (right) strike a pose and act as doormen.

statues of luis de camoes and henry the navigator at the royal portuguese reading room
Photo courtesy of Alejandro.

The library has been open to the public since 1900. Today, it publishes the magazine Convergência Lusíada, a journal of Portuguese literature and culture, and offers college-level courses on literature, the Portuguese language, history, anthropology, and the arts. You are welcome to visit this cathedral of knowledge without knowing a single word of Portuguese. Although you might want to practice saying, ‘Eu amo livros.’ (I love books.)

 

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