The World’s Most Beautiful Library: The Klementinum in Prague Is an Architectural Dream Come True

BY Louise Chambers TIMEJuly 23, 2020 PRINT

Touted by many as the “most beautiful library in the world,” the Klementinum in the Czech Republic is a bonafide work of art. Nestled in the historical center of Prague, the baroque architectural masterpiece has inspired awe since the early 18th century. Its ornate interior must be seen to be believed.

The library was originally an 11th-century chapel but eventually expanded into 2 hectares and became a Jesuit university in 1556. Empress Maria Theresa recognized its official status as an observatory, library, and university in 1777.

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The baroque library hall of the Klementinum in Prague’s old town, Czech Republic. (Bruno Delzant/CC BY 2.0)

According to the Klementinum’s official website, the library holds over 20,000 books, most of which are foreign theological tomes. It became known as the country’s national library in 1781 when Klementinum director Karel Rafael Ungar put together a collection of literature for the people of the Czech Republic.

Some books, aged almost 300 years, have been lovingly preserved since the inauguration of the library; these volumes are identifiable by their white painted spines.

The library’s iconic interior boasts breathtakingly colorful ceiling frescoes by the artist Jan Hiebl. The murals comprise portraits of Jesuit saints, patrons of the university, and various allegorical motifs pertaining to education and learning.

The Klementinum is so widely renowned for its beauty that the library was even mentioned in a novel by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “The Secret Miracle.” In the book, the protagonist dreams of the library and its librarians looking for God between the pages of the books.

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The balcony and ornate decorations in the interior of the Klementinum. (Screenshot/Google Maps)
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The ceiling of the Klementinum, decorated with frescoes by Jan Hiebl. (Screenshot/Google Maps)

Beside its collection of 20,000 books, the library is home to a vast collection of astronomical globes and numerous theological tomes rescued from abolished monasteries. A portrait of Emperor Joseph II in the main hall pays homage to the man who orchestrated the shipment of these books to the Klementinum.

Starting in 2020, some of the library’s books are being digitized and will eventually appear in a digital library on Google Books. But while the library’s collection is moving with the times, the building’s interior is still celebrated for its original 18th-century splendor.

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(Shanti Hesse/Shutterstock)
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The general reading room at the Klementinum. (Screenshot/Google Maps)

A brand-new Czech National Library building was proposed by the architect Jan Kaplický and his firm, Future Systems, in 2007. However, the design was widely criticized by the public, who referred to the modernist structure as the “blob” or “octopus,” according to the Prague Post.

Then-President Václav Klaus also dismissed the design as being “inappropriate for Prague,” while then-Mayor Pavel Bém felt it would diminish the beauty of the city skyline. Kaplický passed away in 2009 at the age of 71 while controversy surrounding his design persisted.

In 2005, the beloved library was honored with the UNESCO “Memory of the World” prize. As the crown jewel of Prague’s rich architecture, the Klementinum will be lovingly preserved for future generations.

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Louise Chambers is a writer, born and raised in London, England. She covers inspiring news and human interest stories.
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