Prague’s Nostitz Palace houses priceless collection of books

Nostitz Palace Library, photo: archive of National Museum

One of the city’s most precious book collections is to be found in the Nostitz Palace Library in Prague’s Lesser Town. The Early Baroque building, former residence of the noble family of Nostitz-Rieneck, is now home to the Czech Ministry of Culture. The precious library within, which is only open to visitors on special occasions, is administered by the National Museum. I asked Richard Šípek who administers the priceless collection of ancient books to take me through the library and show me some of its treasures.

Nostitz Palace Library,  photo: archive of National Museum
“It is actually one of the two last palace libraries in Prague and I should add the older one. It was founded in the 1670s. The founder of this building, Johann Hartwig von Nostitz, bought the library of his late brother Otto of Nostitz who held an important position in the administration of Lower Silesia and who assembled an extensive library counting approximately 5,000 books –which now make up the core of this library. The library now counts approximately 14,000 books and besides that we have some 2,000 books from the Měšice Castle library, founded in the 19th century. It was common at the time that old book collections were “closed” for new purchases and so-called Neue Bibliotheken were founded which more corresponded to the information needs of the aristocrats of the time.”

All these books look ancient…what kind of books have we got here?

“This is a typical example of the Bibliotheka Universalis which means that the library should contain books from all fields of contemporary human knowledge. The libraries were established not only for the information needs of the owner, but also for representation purposes. The library was to show a love of the sciences, a love of the muses and reflect the erudition of the owner.”

Are there any hand-written notes in these books?

“Yes, of course, in the course of the last ten years I went through approximately 13,000 of these books and tried to list all the provenance records which were put into the books to denote their ownership and in this way we were able to trace back books from other libraries that were bought to enrich the collection of the Nostitz family over the years.”

“Behind this “secret” door there was the apartment of the librarian and another secret door was for the private use of the family of Nostitz.”

Are these books ever used?

“Yes, of course. The library is still used by scholars, we bring the books to the reading room of the National Museum library on request where they are studied by experts from different fields.”

We are standing here alone and the alarm system is on…is the public ever allowed in here?

“Yes, we try to make the library accessible and organize open door days for the public not only to the Nostitz library, but also to the second palace library - the Kinsky family library which is located on Old Town Square.”

What are some of the oldest books – the most precious books that you have here?

“The oldest book is a manuscript –the so-called Sumare Mundi – a collection of juridical works and treatises, but the most precious books are unfortunately not here anymore. First it is the Gutenberg Bible which was printed in the years between 1453 and 1455. The copy in this library was printed on a parchment and was beautifully illuminated on the sides of the pages – the so-called marginalia. This book disappeared from the library at the end of the 18th century and reappeared at the beginning of the 20th century in an auction in London when it was bought by the Huntington library in California where it is on display. The second most important book left the library in 1956 –it was De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) written by Nicolaus Copernicus and this book was presented as a state gift to the Polish Republic. It is part of the collection of the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow.”

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Do you get scholars from abroad coming here or do you lend these books for exhibitions or for study abroad?

“Yes, actually many scholars who come to the Nostitz library come from abroad and many books from this library were exhibited at various foreign exhibitions.”

You have spent 10 years cataloguing these books and you say that every library has its own particular smell…

“Yes, of course, it may sound a bit ridiculous, but I believe that I would be able to guess what library I am standing in blindfolded just by the specific smell. Every library smells a bit different, has its own specific smell, some are not so pleasant, but most have a characteristic specific smell that brings memories to your mind.”

Where do the different smells come from?

“Mostly from the book bindings, the different types of bindings. Most of the books here are bound in parchment book bindings and the second most common type of book bindings the so-called French binding which is leather gilded on the spine.”

Are there any hidden compartments in this library?

“Well, it might seem as if there were hidden or secret doors but this wasn’t the purpose of their construction. The real reason for these hidden doors, which are behind the bookshelves, was the need to save space. They tried to use every bit of space available for storing books. So behind one door there is a staircase leading to the library gallery, behind the second “secret” door there was the apartment of the librarian, where the librarian lived, and another secret door was for the private use of the family of Nostitz who would enter the library through this door.”

“I believe that I would be able to guess what library I am standing in, blindfolded, just by the specific smell.”

What is behind the door where the librarian used to live? Is it still used?

“It has been turned into offices for the ministry’s clerks.”

Another thing that strikes me is that it is quite warm in here –there is no air conditioning – does that not damage the books?

“Actually not, the books have been here for more than 300 years and they are still in good shape. This is due to the fact that the changes in temperature and humidity here are very slow. Books are like living organisms and if the temperature changes are gradual they can get used to them. The library never had air condition or heating in the past and I think the books got used to it through the centuries.”

Can we have a closer look at some of the books on display here?

“This is the so-called Atlas Novus, a book of maps published in the mid-17th century by the family Blaeu in Amsterdam. It was divided into six volumes and each volume was filled with maps of different parts of the world. Here we have a volume that is completely dedicated to France, to the different counties and regions. What is interesting is that these atlases did not contain only topographical information, but also information on the history of the counties and of the land and the most important personalities who lived there. So topography and history mixed together.”

There aren’t any books of this kind anymore – have these books been digitalized?

Nostitz Palace,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Yes, I believe that this edition is available online, or the digital copy of this edition is available online. We discovered that it was actually a very expensive book in the probate directory of Otto of Nostitz. Those six volumes were priced at 100 golden coins which was the price of a house at the time.”

And what have we here?

“I already mentioned the manuscript handwritten by Nicolaus Copernicus, which is no longer here, but Copernicus is still present in the library because we have in our collection this book – a so-called incunabula or book printed before the year 1500 –this is a book from his private library. It is a medical treatise on the healing of fever and here we can see his name -in the genitive- Nicolai Copernici – or belonging to Nicolaus Copernicus.”

Which is your own favourite?

“I have a couple of favourite books. One of them I did not put on display because it is not visually interesting but the handwritten note inside makes it precious. It is a book of Luther’s sermons dedicated by Philip Melanchthon to a German aristocrat and the dedication is written by the hand of Philip Melanchthon which makes it very precious. And we would find here many other interesting manuscripts –for instance a book of Arabic prayers which was taken as a war loot in 1664 during the wars with the Turks which was not actually part of the library of Otto of Nostitz but an exhibit in his cabinet of curiosities.”

There are thousands of books here –do you know where to find each one of them?

“There is a very precise system of shelf marks, so I believe I would find any book within two minutes.”

It’s all computerised of course?

“Yes, the catalogue was computerized and is easy to use.”

But there are still paper marks here, I see …

Arte della vera navegatione,  photo: archive of National Museum
“Yes, and actually they are still in use. They denote the range of book numbers on the shelves.”

This collection of books must be exceptionally precious.

“Yes, it is and we do not venture to estimate its financial value. There is an estimate for security reasons but the books are irreplaceable –they are priceless due to their origin and the owners they belonged to.”