Journey reading

A book by Lilia Schwarcz narrates how the Portuguese Royal Library arrived in Brazil

National LibraryD. João VI fleeing from Portugal with the royal family in November of 1807National Library

That Brazil paid a price for becoming independent from Portugal is nothing new. What has been unknown is that the huge sum of 800 contos de réis, the equivalent to 2 million pounds sterling and four times the value of the royal silverware, was spent to guarantee the arrival of the valuable Royal Library onto Brazilian soil. This fact is given in the book A Longa Viagem da Biblioteca dos Reis [The Long Journey of the Kings’ Library] (published by Companhia das Letras, 560 pages; price R$ 44.50), written by professor Lilia Moritz Schwarcz from the Anthropology Department of the University of São Paulo (USP).The work of the full professor relates the story of the Portuguese Royal Library, afterwards transformed into the National Library, from the time of the Lisbon earthquake followed by the fire in 1755, up until the independence of Brazil.

The desire to study the trajectory of the Portuguese royal archive was born in the previous research carried out by Lilia, financed through FAPESP, which gave origin to the book As Barbas do Imperador [The Emperor’s Beards] (published by Companhia das Letras in 1998; 624 pages; price R$ 44.00), that focused on Dom Pedro II. As a consequence of this thesis, she had spent considerable time at the National Library. There, she realized that there was a lack of a study that would evaluate the archive. “The documentation was spread throughout different divisions”, Lilia related. The objective was to unify and to classify the patrimony, so that research within the library could be spurred. Lilia is an anthropologist but has always got herself involved with ethnohistory, which is linked to anthropology.

The project was financed by the company Odebrecht and written in partnership with Paulo Cesar de Azevedo (who died before the book was published) and Angela Marques da Costa. Besides them, Lilia was able to count upon the help of around twenty other people, among them librarians, Latin scholars, and document “translators”. The research lasted four years and the anthropologist had to go twice to Portugal, where she remained for a month and a half. During the journeys she looked for information in the do Tombo Tower, at the National Library and at the Da Ajuda National Palace.

The book begins with the earthquake followed by the fire that terrorized Lisbon on a peaceful holiday morning of the 1st of November, All Saints Day. Because of it the Royal Library was lost in the Paço da Ribeira, apple of the eye of the Portuguese Crown, where seventy thousands volumes had been accumulated, stored on walnut shelves set up in marble floored rooms. Lilia describes in the book that the fire was merciless with the secularly accumulated papers and repeated the fate of a series of libraries, such as that of Alexandria, which ended up in flames. Among the lost treasures were the Bible printed in 1462 and studies by Rafael, Michelangelo and Rubens.

The destruction of the regal library was a great loss. It had been heralded as one of the greatest ones of Europe resplendent with rare pieces. And it had represented, more than just a cultural patrimony, but the self-affirmation of a poorer country, visibly distant from the rest of Europe. It had expressed an obsession of monarchs for books, or at least, for political, social and symbolic advantages that an archive such as that had represented, and had functioned as the principal adornment of the king. The tradition of acquiring books began with the Dom João II and become of grandiose proportions with Dom João V. He ordered entire foreign libraries to be purchased, private and precious collections, looked upon a trophies. Everything was bought with Brazilian gold. The archive didn’t only just have a rich accumulation of books and manuscripts, but precious iconographic collections of European prints.

The fact that they had a magnificent library did not mean that the Portuguese had access to it or even that they liked to read. Foreigners announced to the four winds various characteristics that made of Portugal a provincial country, not matching up to the size of its cultural archive. However, the indifference to the world of letters was well disguised. Lilia narrates that members of the court liked to use glasses in an attempt to show off their love for reading.

The crowning jewel for the self-esteem of the Crown, the royal library was rebuilt shortly after the earthquake – its reconstruction had been included among the emergency tasks of the reconstruction plan made by the Marquis of Pombal. Private archives were purchased, collections that had been forgotten about in monasteries were demanded and quickly abandoned by the Jesuits (expelled by Pombal) and generous donations were also made. The Portuguese royal archive was divided into two: the royal library, at the Paço da Ajuda (Palace of Assistance), and the Public Royal Library.

A magnificent acquisition was the collection by the abbot Diogo Barbosa Machado, who gave up his patrimony of 4,301 works in exchange for a fat pension for himself and for the people whom he looked after. It was the Enlightenment that guided the choice of books, but Enlightenment the Portuguese manner, limited by the screening of the Inquisition. In the Portugal of Pombal, new models of thinking were debated along with traditional mentalities and this was expressed in the reconstruction of the royal archive. Lilia relates in detail the reconstruction of the library, leaving exposed her training as an anthropologist, looking for the symbolic feeling of this reconstruction.

It was this rich archive, full of books, documents and engravings, that came with the royal family to Brazil in November of 1807. Or better, should have come. The royal library, all of it crated up, was forgotten at the port, such was the haste of the court to be leave for the safety of Brazilian lands. The crates remained there, castigated by the sun and the rain, until they were again collected by the Ajuda. Three voyages were necessary to bring all of the collection, during 1810 and 1811.

Those who imagine that enlightenment only arrived in Brazil with the embarkation of this valuable patrimony are wrong. “It is illusory to think that reading only began with the arrival of the court”, Lilia says. In her opinion, a small part of the population already had the habit of reading and absorbed books coming from Portugal and France. Even at that, she says that her work serves to restate what Sérgio Buarque de Holanda called the “culture of the shine”: the government did not worry itself about teaching reading and writing to the population, as long as that knowledge was duly guarded in magnificent libraries.

The author relates how the coming of the library to Brazil occurred. For Dom Pedro I it was very important that it should remain here, so as to polish a land that was seen as savage and rough, too tropical to house knowledge. In the account of the objects that Portugal had a right to a claim against Brazil, the library was the second item of the Additional Convention of the Peace and Friendship Treaty of the 29th of August 1825, in which Dom Pedro I agreed to reimburse the Portuguese royal family, 12.5% of the value deposited, prior only to the payment of half of the public debt until 1817.

Lilia recognizes that, by attempting to relate the trajectory of the library, she entered into other fields of study, investigating the history of the Portugal of that era. She discusses the concept of a library, in the same way that she describes in detail the era of Pombal. She spends chapters explaining Portuguese history. “I had to show the entire context, but, instead of narrating the grand history, I ended up with a micro-history”, the anthropologist analyzes.

The Long Journey of the Kings’ Library is bearing fruit. It should be launched during the first semester of next year on a CD-ROM by the National Library and in a book of art with close to six hundred pictures, accompanied by technical and explanatory captions.