The Clementinum, the Baroque pearl of Prague


Standing in the centre of the Clementinum – if you can locate such a thing in the labyrinth – you are surrounded by around a millennium of history and millions of volumes of books inside one of the most beautifully preserved masterpieces of Baroque art the city of Prague has to offer. This is the seat of the Czech National Library and the whispering and rustling that echoes through its grand halls add perfectly to its natural mysteriousness.

Photo: CzechTourism
Right now we are finding that things were being built here even in the 6th century. Archaeology has shown that this part of the Vltava, at the eastern foot of Charles Bridge, has always been a favourite of the Czechs’ ancestors, with evidence of settlement going back to the 400s AD. But the story of the Clementinum begins in the early 13th century, as the library’s Libuše Piherová told me as we walked around the vaulted galleries.

“There is a legend that there was a female hermit living here who had a dream in which Saint Clement told her she should visit the Dominicans in Poříčí and lead them here. The legend says that she convinced them, and the annals show that the Dominicans did indeed come in 1232 and built a monastery that was as large as the Students’ Courtyard here, which is where it was located. Its size of course cannot be compared with the Clementinum today. Few people know it, but with its two hectares, the Clementinum is the second largest historical building in the city after Prague Castle.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
The Dominican Order was spreading across Europe and beyond in the 13th century. And despite their emphasis on mysticism and asceticism, Dominican learning and scholarship founded the strong tradition of the future Clementinum in the days of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus.

“One of the Dominicans’ ambitions was to be great teachers, which they were, and major European educators of the time worked here and created manuscripts of great renown that we still have in our collections. But they were also interested in social matters and they organised the first local parliaments of noblemen here between the reigns of Otakar II and Charles IV. So you could really say that this place, the Clementinum, has always been a place of books and learning – a place of the mind, to put it generally.”

The Dominicans were also some of the church’s best inquisitors, and it was they who imprisoned the Czech Reformer Jan Hus in the early 15th century. No sooner did the Catholic legions march on Prague than the Hussites destroyed them, banished the “black monks” and ravaged their works.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The Hussites came in 1420 and laid ruin to the monastery and expelled the Dominicans, who escaped to Poland. The ruins remained here until 1556, when Emperor Ferdinand dedicated the land to the Jesuits. They in turn bought up all of the adjoining houses and gardens, and began creating an admirable architectural, and later ecclesiastical work. Straight away they established a Latin secondary school, which within sixty years became a college.”

The developing dormitories at what would become the Clementinum would soon after be used as a book storage space for the growing Charles University, and the rest, you could say, is history. The present building was constructed by the Jesuits between 1653 and 1726 and has changed very little since then, imparting upon Prague what many call its “Baroque Pearl”.

“The Jesuits were very good builders among other things, and the Clementinum was built like a kind of fortress that they called Insula nostra Klementinum, ‘our island Clementinum’, by which they meant that they were completely self-sufficient here from the gardens in which they grew vegetables to the very efficient sewage system, printing room, dispensary, study rooms and everything needed for life.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
The enormous complex, perhaps needless to say, also includes a great many ecclesiastical buildings –St. Salvador Church and the Church of Saint Clement, the Chapel of Mirrors, Chapels of Saint Eligius and Saint Jan of Nepomuc and a chapel dedicated to the assumption. And then there is hall after grand hall, dedicated to mathematics, music and of course literature.

“What visitors are always most impressed with and what I always like to point out is the ‘newest’ piece of furniture in the Baroque Library Hall, which bears the inscription ‘Bibliotheca Nationalis’. When the monasteries were closed in the 1780s by Joseph II, who saw better sue for them as warehouses and hospitals, their manuscripts were stored in the Chapel of Mirrors here. The second director of the Clementinum set aside the few Czech and Slovak documents that he found and put them in a compartment in the Baroque Library Hall with the sign reading ‘Bibliotheca Nationalis’. And that was really the beginning of the National Library.”

The astronomical tower
The Clementinum is large alright, but not nearly large enough for the 6.5 million books that the National Library has in its possession. The recent completion of the National Technical Library took a great strain off, but even the central depository built on the other side of Prague in 1997 is past capacity now. Consensus was never reached on a plan to construct a new library in Prague and so the Clementinum currently finds itself under an extensive ten-year process ‘revitalisation’ intended to increase storage space. But there is more to the Clementinum than just books. One of its most popular features, for example, is its looming astronomical tower.

“The astronomical tower was completed in 1722, and at first it was only used as a sort of lookout tower. The Jesuits were always interested in using things for study, so from the 1750s they began using it for astronomical and also climatological measurements, among other things. In the year 1775 Antonín Strnad began a series of continuous measurements of the temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. These measurements were taken several times a day, every day, and they are still being taken today.”

In the short story “The Secret Miracle” by Jorge Luis Borges, an aged librarian spends his life seeking a single letter on a single page of a book, somewhere in the Clementinum, that contains God. There could hardly be a more suitable venue for such an endeavour, given the weight of history and the general, all-pervasive mysteriousness of the Clementinum that Dr Piherová says can be put down to a number of factors.

Father Koniáš
“We don’t know everything that happened here, but we know that during the time of the Dominicans a tribunal of the inquisition was headquartered here. We have documentation that in 1414 on one of our courtyards there were burnings of so-called heretics. So that is a stain on the history of the Clementinum... and there is one other stain (the rest is all good): there was the work of Father Koniáš, who was a son of supervisor here and a zealous Jesuit with a flair for oratory and he would faint during his sermons. He is very well known for having burnt Czech books and survives in nursery rhymes. So the many thousands of books that he destroyed may have been another reason for the gloomy associations of the Clementinum today.”

To say nothing of the ghost of Saint Edmund Campion, who studied here in the 16th century before coming up with the unfortunate idea of re-Catholicising his native England and being tortured and executed almost upon arrival, before returning to the Clementinum 500 years later as a spectre of death to terrify the secretaries in the economic department. All these stories and more enjoy tremendous interest among visitors, both foreign and domestic, and will be yours to enjoy again when the building reopens later this year.