A Guide to the Prague Klementium
The sites I was most excited to see while visiting Prague, were their libraries. Prague has some of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and although most of them are off-limits to the public, there are tours during certain times of the day which allow bibliophiles to soak up all the history and literary treasures that lie inside these old buildings.
The Klementinum (or Clementinum in English) is a large building complex that stretches across an entire city block. Since the 15th century, astronomers, scientists, philosophers and musicians have poured through its door to study the precious books inside. These great men of science and art came together here, influencing each other and developing some of the modern eras greatest inventions. You enter the Klementinum through the back of the building, and as you walk up to it, through its maze of stuccoed arches and towering windows, you get to see just how large this complex is.
The only way to get into the libraries, if you’re not a Czech scholar, is by a guided tour. These run about every hour and are worth every penny. For tour times and hours visit their website. To find the tour group, you enter through a small set of wooden doors, near the church. Inside you will see a little ticket booth with a (usually) surly employee sitting behind the glass. After purchasing your ticket you waits for your tour guide to set you off on your journey throughout this gorgeous building.
The Klementinum dates all the way back to the 11th century. It formerly was merely a small chapel, dedicated to Saint Clement run by Dominican monks. The Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand I wanted to help increase his power within the Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia (now Prague) and to do this he invited the Jesuits into his city.
Wanting to make them feel more at home and give them some sense of importance, the Emperor gifted them the building now known as the Klementinum. It had a prime location, right across from the Charles Bridge, and was a great gift for the order. In 1556, the development of the library began, and in 1653 they had managed to build one of the most significant collections of books and literary material in Europe. When the entire library was finished, it was the most massive building in Prague, after the Prague Castle. Eventually, the Jesuits fell out with the Pope, and so in 1773 the library was given over to the people of Prague and became a part of the Charles University.
The first room that the guide will take you into is the Great Mirror Chapel. The architecture of the Klementinum varies from room to room as different parts of the building were built during different periods, but in essence, it is an excellent example of Baroque architecture. The Mirror Chapel was built in 1724 and features ornate frescoes, mirrors along the ceiling and intricate gilded stucco. The rust coloured walls and peach painted ceiling are a unique touch which makes the chamber seem to glow and makes the visitor feel warm and cozy. The faux marble columns along the walls each contains a beautifully framed work of art. These works of art were created mostly by Jan Hiebl, a Czech artist of not much note, but who made a significant impression on the people who visit this chapel. One of the most important things to look at while in here are the two organs, one of which that was played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his visits to the Klementinum.
This chapel can also be visited if you buy tickets to one of their "Classical Concerts" which takes place inside the Mirror Chapel. These concerts are a fantastic option for visiting the Klementinum. During the show you will be treated to music from the 18th-century on the historic organ, played by a local musician. The very same organ played by Mozart himself.
After soaking in all the beauty inside the chapel, your guide lead up the first set of narrow stairs to the 2nd Floor. This is where the historic library is housed. On the way to the library, you pass by various glass cabinets, housing different instruments used by astronomers to explore the skies, to track the weather and map constellations.
The corridor is covered in ornate stucco along the ceiling, containing frescoes of various scenes from prominent literary writings. Like echoes of the past, leading you down towards your destination.
Although you can't walk inside the library and pick up any books, there are various special volumes on display under glass which gives you a glimpse of the kind of books stores on the shelves within. Each one is masterfully done with perfect calligraphy and illustration on every page. Monks would spend a lifetime creating a mere few copies of the same book, dispersing it to only a few prestigious libraries around the world.
As the guide leads you over to the only open set of doors, you will be immediately taken aback by the tremendous amount of things to look at. It is a stunning display, housing over 20,000 books from the early 17th century and onwards. There is a sea of baroque finishings. The ceiling is frescoed an original aspect of 18th-century design. The paintings on the ceiling displays the Temple of Wisdom, a city from Greek Mythology, which was thought to have housed thousands of theological volumes dating back to 1600. Jan Hiebl, the same artist who painted the frescos in the Mirror Chapel, also did these frescos. He uses light and shadow to create a domed effect. He spent tireless hours to give the illusion of natural sunlight pouring into the space despite natural light being very restricted in here to keep the books safe from damage.
The bookshelves themselves are carved from stunning dark wood which shines even in the dim light. Some columns are carved into spirals, topped off with gold capitals. Above the tops of each bookshelf are golden frames with the names of prominent Jesuits inscribed. These Jesuits were the people who helped build this impressive library throughout the years. The books in the collection consist mainly of theological volumes in various foreign languages. It also contains a Mozartiana, a book about the life of Tycho Brahe and Comenius, as well as historical examples of famous Czech literature. Some of the books in the collection are so rare and unique that they have been given to Google to be digitally preserved online for everyone to see.
In the centre of the room are various globes, of different sizes, displaying historical diagrams of and maps of the world. You can see how opinions changed throughout the years and the shapes of continents would grow or shrink based on the newest technology. There are also several sets of celestial globes. Celestial globes show the position of the stars in the sky.
Although you might not want to leave, eventually, the tour guide must move on, and you are taken to the next floor up which contains the infamous Meridian Hall. The Meridian Hall was an invention designed to determine 12 noon. When the scientists inside would see that noon had come (based on their instruments), they would ring the bells from the top of the bell tower, to indicate to the rest of the town that it was midday. Alongside, the Meridian Hall are several weather recording devices used to note the weather in the Czech lands as early as 1775. These are even still used today to continue to record the weather.
For those brave enough, you can mount the final, very thin and rickety set of stairs to enter the bell tower. You must climb up 172 steps to get to the top of the tower but once you're up there you have a stunning 360° view of Prague!
Being up here helps you get a sense of where everything is in Prague. You can see all the important landmarks and a bronze diagrams help identify all the famous buildings you're looking down at. This was so helpful since we'd see something far off in the distance and want to make a note of tracking it down on land.
Seeing as the tour group is so small, you have this view all to yourself once the group spreads out. It was so romantic and truly an oasis of serenity in a city which can be very overwhelming..
On the very top of the bell tower, there is a massive bronze sculpture of Atlas holding up the world. On our way out, we took one last look up to the top of the tower from where we were once standing. The Klementinum and the Strahov Monastery are truly my two favourite landmarks in Prague, and you MUST give them a visit if you're even in the city.