STEPHEN SCOURFIELD looks inside the halls of the Strahov Monastery Library
This is the internet before the internet.
The Strahov Monastery Library in Prague is the internet as we might have seen it in 1143, when this data collection began.
The walls are crammed with information, and up spiral staircases hidden behind false books there’s more on a balcony floor, up in the clouds.
You can place a book on each horizontal blade of the 16th century wooden wheel in the corner, and rotate it (like a waterwheel) to study several at one time, like multiple screens.
In all, there are 280,000 titles, with the library’s smaller Theological Hall dating from the 1600s and biggest — Philosophical Hall — from the 1700s.
The library also has 1500 first editions, from when the first presses rolled, and 3000 manuscripts which predate printing. The oldest manuscript is the Strahov Gospel from 860AD.
Strahov Monastery was founded in 1138, after the Bishop of Olomouc, Jindrich Zdik, returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There are just 15 Norbertine monks here now, but the founder of the order, St Norbert, is buried in Strahov’s Basilica of the Assumption.
And the Strahov Monastery Library — the most significant monastery library in the Czech Republic — is still in use. There are 10 librarians, and researchers and academics can come here to read, study and research.
Damaged by fire, the ceilings above were repainted by the artist of the original, Anton Maulbertsch, who was then 70, and worked with one assistant.
It is epic, with scenes from Old and New testaments, and appearances from the likes of Socrates and Hippocrates.
At either end of the library are locked casements, which hold books with opinions that are not agreed with. Interestingly, they were not destroyed, but kept as a counterpoint to accepted beliefs.
The library has attracted its fans. Lady Emma Hamilton loved it when she visited in 1800 (she was surely one of the early and great #metoo heroines). Austrian princess Marie Napoleon, who as Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, visited in 1812 and then sent books and an important four-volume work about the first Louvre museum.
And in the Theological Hall, there are globes from the 1600s which show the continents and constellations as they were then understood — the world-wide webs of growing our knowledge.
TRAVELLING WITH TAUCK
Visitors can see the rooms of the library, but most can’t go inside the halls, and have the experience I’ve just enjoyed.
But I feel rather guilty when, as our group is ushered out, a couple of young ladies try to enter, but are stopped. “No!” says the rather austere woman at the door.
Entry inside the halls of the library is exclusive, and I’m glad to be with Tauck, which has brought me into the heart of this treasure.
The reason is that too many visitors make too much humidity and it’s bad for the books.
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