Coimbra, The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

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Old university from left bank of River Mondego, Coimbra

Sitting on top of a hill above the city of Coimbra is the Paço das Escolas (Schools’ Palace), a former royal palace that houses the oldest university in Portugal, the University of Coimbra. When the university was first founded by King Dinis in 1290 it was on two sites, Coimbra and Lisbon, and stayed like that until 1537 when King João III decreed that the university should be based in Coimbra. Statues honouring both King Dinis and King João III have been erected on the campus.

Statue of King Dinis, University of Coimbra

There has been a palace on the site of the Paço das Escolas since the late-tenth century when it was the Royal Palace of Alcáçova during the Moorish period, although the exterior of the palace dates largely from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and from 1131 it was the home of the Portuguese royal family, beginning with Afonso Henriques, later King Afonso I the first king of Portugal, at a time when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal.

The entrance to the Velha Universidade (Old University) in the Paço das Escolas is through the ornate Porta Férrea (Iron Gate) designed by António Tavares in 1634 and decorated with images of King Dinis and King João III, along with figures symbolizing the three areas of study at that time (law, medicine and theology) and at the top of the gate is a figure representing wisdom. As we approached the Porta Férrea the crowds of tourists parted long enough for me to notice the university emblem of Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom) holding a book and a sceptre with an armillary sphere on the top, designed in a pattern of cobbles on the ground.

The gateway leads into a large courtyard, the Pátio das Escolas, with an imposing statue of King João III looking proudly at the university buildings, sculpted by Francisco Franco in 1950, and taking pride of place in the centre of the courtyard.

Statue of King João III, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

After buying our ticket to visit the chapel, library and Great Hall, we had 30 minutes before our timed entry into the library, which gave us an opportunity to look at the intricate details on the exterior of the building, starting with the Via Latina, a walkway constructed in the 1770s, during the period of enlightenment and educational reform spearheaded by the Marquês de Pombal, who encouraged a wider range of subjects to be taught at the university. The Via Latina has a beautiful colonnaded staircase and sculptures depicting King José I alongside figures representing fortitude, justice and wisdom.

As the chapel and library were closed at that time we were able to marvel at the Manueline-style decor dating from the early-sixteenth century on the doorway of the Capela de São Miguel (Saint Michael’s Chapel), including the royal coat-of-arms, the cross of Christ and an armillary sphere, and at the doorway of the Biblioteca Joanina (Joanine Library) dating from the 1720s which was built to look like a triumphal arch, with columns and an elaborate cornice topped with a crown.

To the left of the library, and built around the same time, is the Escada de Minerva (Minerva Staircase), which is another entrance into the Pátio das Escolas, with a statue at the top of Minerva, again holding a book and sceptre. Watching over the courtyard is an early-eighteenth-century bell tower, designed by António Canevari, with a clock and four bells which regulate the start and end of each day. One of the bells (the one facing the river) is nicknamed a cabra (the goat) allegedly due to the sound it makes (but the word cabra is also a slang word with pejorative connotations and I can imagine that many a student has muttered it under his/her breath as the bell rang to start classes!). The best views of the old university and the tower are from the other side of the River Mondego, but it is also worth climbing the 184-step spiral staircase for unrestricted views of the city and beyond, including the two cathedrals (Sé Velha and Sé Nova (Old and New Cathedrals)) below and the two convents (Santa Clara-a-Velha and Santa Clara-a-Nova) on the left bank of the river, from the viewing platform at the top of the tower (be aware that you have to buy a separate ticket to do this).

Having explored the exterior, it was time to visit the first of the three interior sections of the old university, Saint Michael’s Chapel. This small chapel was built in the late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth century from a design by Marcos Pires and Diogo de Castilho, and it may be small but it was richly decorated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and every corner of the chapel has something of interest, including the Mannerist altar built in 1605 with a statue of Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of Light, the patron saint of students) in a small altar to the left and another of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception, the patron saint of the university) on the right. Added to this are the beautiful late-seventeenth-century azulejo panels that cover every millimetre of wall, but the highlight is the Baroque organ built in the 1730s by Friar Manuel Gomes which is richly decorated with gold leaf and trumpet-blowing angels and which comprises 2000 pipes.

The chapel was a warm-up for the Baroque extravagence of the much-publicized Joanine Library. I had read wonderful things about it before I arrived, but was disappointed to find out that photography in the library was forbidden, so I had to try to commit everything to memory; I did buy a slightly out-of-focus postcard in the gift shop, but it didn’t do justice to the opulence of this library which was commissioned by King João V in 1717 (hence the name ‘joanine’). During this time Portugal had become a very wealthy country, particularly from gold which had recently been discovered in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and this is celebrated in the library, particularly at the far end where a portrait of King João V (attributed to Giorgio Domêncio Duprà) hangs surrounded by excessive gold ornamentation and topped by a gold crown. The library is divided up into three rooms and in each room are two-tiered oak shelves decorated with gold-leaf images in the Chinese style which was popular at the time, by Manuel de Silva, and tables made of exotic wood. The ceiling is decorated with detailed trompe l’oeil paintings by António Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes, depicting the library, the university and the faculties of law, medicine and theology. It is claimed that there are 60,000 books in the library dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; among the rarer books in the collection is a first edition of Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões (1572) and one of the few surviving Hebrew Bibles from the fifteenth century. The books are aesthetically arranged on the shelves making it look more like a museum than a library and I suspect that it has been a long time since anyone has actually read a book from here. The books are protected by keeping the library at a constant temperature and level of humidity and by a colony of bats which live in the library and eat the insects that would normally destroy the pages.

Postcard of Joanine Library, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

From the Piso Nobre (Noble Floor), as this part of the library is called, we were ushered downstairs to a comparatively stark area with more displays of books on shelves and in glass cabinets and then down a spiral staircase to the basement where we found ourselves in a former medieval prison made up of two cells, which from 1773 to 1832 was used as the prisão acadêmica (academic prison), a place where students were imprisoned for breaking the university rules.

It was nice to get back into the bright light of the courtyard, which we crossed to climb the stairs of the Via Latina to enter the main part of the former palace. The highlight in this part of the building is the Sala dos Capelos (Hall of Capes), also known as Sala Grande dos Actos (Great Hall), which was once the throne room dating from 1655. This room still has a regal look to it, from the red and gold decor and the dark wooden furniture to the portraits of the kings of Portugal, from King Afonso I to King João IV, on the walls and the ceiling covered with over 100 wooden panels painted in a Baroque style in gold and silver by Jacinto Pereira da Costa. The hall is now used for official university ceremonies, including being the place PhD viva voce exams are held.

Great Hall (Sala dos Capelos), Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

The other rooms open to the public retain a palatial look, including the Sala do Exame Privado (Private Examination Room) with a colourful ceiling by José Ferreira Araújo (1701) and walls lined with azulejos and portraits of past university rectors; the Sala das Armas (Hall of Arms) which houses antique arrows displayed on the azulejo-decorated walls and displays the royal coat-of-arms on the ceiling; and the Sala Amarela (Yellow Room) and Sala Azul (Blue Room) which are named after the colour of the silk wallpaper on the walls, each representing a faculty (yellow for medicine and blue for science and technology), and both of which have more portraits of former rectors on the walls.

The university, including the Paço das Escolas, the sixteenth-century buildings on the Rua da Sofia in the lower part of the city (many of them no longer owned by the university and not open to the public, including Colégio de São Tomás de Aquino (Saint Thomas Aquinas College) and Colégio de São Pedro dos Religiosos Terceiros (Saint Peter of the Third Order College)), the eighteenth-century science buildings (including Colégio de Jesus (Jesus College), which has displays centred on the 18th– and 19th-century study of physics and natural history) and the Botanic Garden (created in 1772 under the auspices of the Marquês de Pombal), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is as revered in Portugal as Oxford and Cambridge Universities are in the UK.


Alumni include the writers Luís Vaz de Camões, Almeida Garrett, Eça de Queiroz and Vergílio Ferreira; the political singer-songwriter José (Zeca) Afonso; the eighteenth-century prime minister and reformer the Marquês de Pombal; and the twentieth-century dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Nowadays the university departments are spread around the city, many of them in ugly concrete blocks built in the mid-twentieth-century during Salazar’s attempt to modernize the university. Despite (or because of) this, for many people the heart of the university is still in the Paço das Escolas.


Velha Universidade, Paço das Escolas, Coimbra

Ticket office is in Edifício da Biblioteca Geral, Largo da Porta Férrea. A ticket (€12) gives a timed entrance to the Joanine Library, Saint Michael’s Chapel and the Great Hall and a few other rooms of the former palace. It also includes entrance into the Colégio de Jesus, which is in a completely different building and wasn’t part of the tour when we visited in 2016. To climb the tower requires a separate ticket (€2).

Opening hours: March to October 9am-7.30pm; November to February 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5.30pm (closed 1 January, 24 and 25 December, and closes at 2pm 31 December)

Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra (University of Coimbra Botanic Garden), Calçada Martim de Freitas, Coimbra

Entrance is free. Opening hours: April to September 9am-8pm; October to March 9am-5.30pm