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

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

Tuesday, 5 January, 2021

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.)



If you go…

The Reading Room is open to the public and is located in the city center, so it’s easy to pop in and enjoy the splendor. For details on hours and other relevant information, visit the Real Gabinete Português De Leitura website.

  • Real Gabinete Português De Leitura (Royal Portuguese Reading Room)
  • Rua Luís de Camões, 30
  • Centro - Rio de Janeiro
  • Brazil

Top image courtesy of Diego Grandi/Shutterstock.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

In this ep, we discuss the magic of libraries and recommend library-centric books we love, including book-nerd-approved nonfiction, a lyrical literary cycle, a historical novel, and a joyous tale of a secret library.
For readers, the book-lined shelves of libraries and archives are a dreamy backdrop for stories that resonate. These novels and nonfiction titles explore the drama, adventure, and history of our favorite bookish places.
We love a character that's got a salty side to balance the sweetness, and that's just what we get in Peggy, the librarian. These caramels are a tribute to her ability to give her whole heart when it matters the most.
The stacks, backrooms, and archives in libraries all over the world are filled with countless treasures — rare books, photos, parchments, maps — that place us in history. Instagram lets us take a peek from where we sit.
Gilded bookshelves, antique globes, allegorical ceiling frescoes, thousands of books, church ruins, trompe l'oeil — we took it all in on a tour of the Strahov Monastery Library and the Břevnov Monastery in Prague.
The VAC Library in Hanoi is a unique open-air structure that invites play along with learning. Solar-powered and self-sustaining, it's a modern (beautiful) example of how libraries can interact with the environment.
Mary Kingsbury was the first professional school librarian in American history. She started as a teacher in Latin, math, geography, and zoology — not bad for a girl who's father thought she didn't need an education.
It looks like the enchanted library of your dreams, but it's really the East Room of banker J.P. Morgan's 1906 Library, the heart of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Commence swooning.
The Municipal Library of Prague (_Městská knihovna v Praze_) is close to the city center, and it's a quiet, magical place to escape the crush of Old Town and relax in the serenity of bookland. Visitors welcome.
Soft light illuminates floor-to-ceiling shelves of gilt-spined books in the libraries of the Strahov Monastery. But it's not all Latin texts and antique globes: a narwhal horn and a giant crab decorate the hallway.
A sinful but repentant monk, an assist from the devil, an 800-year-old book, potential madness, and a rivalry between Bohemia and Sweden. This story of the Codex Gigas, also known as The Devil's Bible, has everything.
Let's take a virtual tour of stunning libraries from Europe to the UK and across the pond to NYC. It's a celebration of free-thinking, love of learning, and really tall bookshelves. No passport nor library card required.
This award-winning building is a work of art itself, with windows that frame the natural beauty of its setting on the waterfront. Inside, you'll find a lovely glass mural, history and art exhibits, and so many books.
Andrew Carnegie built 59 libraries in Pennsylvania, and the Braddock Carnegie Library near Pittsburgh is an eclectic medieval-style masterpiece. But other libraries found throughout the state are equally stunning.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.