Description Of The Library At Mafra
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The following minute description of the magnificent Library at Mafra, in Portugal, was sent to me by a correspondent nearly two years ago. If you think it worthy of a place in your magazine, it is at your service. W. H. B.
The magnificent edifice of the Convent and Palace of Mafra, founded by King John the Fifth of Portugal, was begun on the 17th of November, 1717, on which day the foundation-stone of the Church was blessed and laid by the first Patriarch of Lisbon, Dom Thomaz d'Almeida. From that day the construction of the edifice proceeded with such rapidity, that on the 22nd of October, of the year 1730, the church was consecrated, and the Convent taken possession of by the Friars da Provincia de Santa Maria d'Arrebida.
The celebrated room containing the conventual library, which has long been the admiration of all beholders, is on the east side of the building, on the fourth floor. The roof is vaulted, and panels of stone, with various designs carved on them, projecting at certain distances from the roof, on entering the room, cause a beautiful perspective. In the middle of the room is a cupola, on the roof of which is placed a large white stone, whereon is engraved the figure of the sun, with its rays shooting regularly around it, which receive great effect from being thrown out above a blue stone. The whole is surrounded by white stones beautifully carved. The floor or pavement of the room, which on its first completion was composed of fine bricks, consists of a species of mosaic work of blue, white, and red, and under the cupola, where there is a round circle of pavement peculiarly rich, black and yellow stones are added to the other colours. This beautiful pavement was laid down by order of Dom Jose the First, and certainly does credit to his taste.
The length of the library is 288 feet, and the breadth 32. Considering, however, that at the north and south ends of the room are recesses of 8 feet deep, where are placed at each end two magnificent doors, 15 feet high and 7 broad—the private entrances to the palace—standing at these doors the library may be said to be 304 feet long, computing from door to door. In the middle, where the cupola is, the room assumes the figure of a cross, 71 feet long, and of course, as before (reckoning from the sides of the room, which after this break proceed- straight on), 32 feet broad. ' Measuring, however, from the balustrade of the windows at the one end of the arm of the cross, looking towards the cerea, or enclosed plantation, to the balustrade of those at the other end of the arm, looking into the flower-garden in the court in the middle of the building, the breadth of the room, where the cross is formed, may be_ set down at 84 feet.
From the pavement to the cymatium the library is 23 feet high, and from the cymatium to the highest point of the vaulted roof above it is said to be 13 1/2 feet, so that the main height of the room may be calculated at 36 1/2 feet. At the cupola, however, it assumes a height of 44 feet, looking from the round circle of pavement to the carved figure of the sun and rays on the ceiling of the dome.
On the east side, fronting the cerea or enclosed plantation, the room has 19 windows, each 13 feet high by 6 feet broad. The five windows in this frontage of the end of the one arm of the cross (3 in front and one at each of the sides) are 18 feet high by 61 broad, having balconies of small dimensions attached to each of them. It is worthy of remark, that on the opposite end of the arm of the cross, which looks to the west into the flower-garden, there are only 3 windows in front. This irregularity, which is by no means displeasing, happens in consequence of the space occupied by the opposite side windows being on this side used for two doors, which are entrances to two rooms, 54 feet long by 22 1/2 broad, each of which has three windows, 13 feet high and 6 feet broad, like the rest of the windows, except, as has been before said, those in the ends of the arms of the cross. One of these rooms was formerly used as a library for manuscripts, and the other was the depository for all prohibited books. Each of the windows on the ground (except those in the cross) stands in a recess, in which are placed a chair, a table covered with a green cloth, an inkstand, and a reading-desk ; which, from the dust on the chairs and tables, and the dried-up state of the ink, appear never to have been used since the friars departed, by either the curious or the studious.
Exactly above the 19 windows on the eastern side, already mentioned, are the same number of windows placed above the cymatium, forming so many arches in the vault of the upper roof. These windows, all communicating light, are each 6 feet high by 5 broad. On the opposite or western side, the number of upper windows is the same, and of the same height and breadth ; but, excepting by the three at the end of the arm of the cross, no light is admitted by any of them. There are also dark windows over each of the four doors which lead into the palace, of the same size as the rest of the upper windows, which make a very pleasing uniformity. A plan was in agitation in the days of King John the Sixth, who was very partial to Mafra, to place mirror-plates in each of the upper windows which give no light ; but the idea, it is supposed, was too costly for the financial resources of his reign.
A magnificent gallery with a railing, at an elevation of feet from the pavement, goes round the library. Four staircases give access to that gallery. The two on the eastern side are winding and small, being made in the spaces of two windows. The two in the western side lead into spacious entrances, and to stairs of fine architecture.
Above that gallery are 82 open book-cases, separated from each other by carved pillars. Each of these cases, from top to bottom, has six rows of shelves of different heights, the upper being little more than nine inches, the middle ones increasing a trifle, till at last the space on the lowest one is about a foot and nine inches high. Each bookcase is numbered, and a description of the branch of literature which it contains is painted on a carved shield placed above it.
Under the gallery are 54 open bookcases, also divided by pillars. Each case contains, from top to bottom, 12 compartments for books. The compartments of the cases below all measure 1 foot 9 inches in height. There are fewer presses or cases for books below than above. This is occasioned by the windows and doors below, in the spaces occupied by which no bookcases are placed, which does not occur above, because there the bookcases are all below the cymatium and the windows above it.