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World Heritage

University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia


The University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia has a unique set of exceptional attributes whose importance extends beyond national borders taking on an international dimension.

One of the oldest universities in Europe

It was founded in 1290 in Lisbon by order of King Dinis being part of the sparse lot of fifteen universities active in Europe at the end of the thirteenth century. After a period of alternation between the cities of Lisbon and Coimbra, the definitive transfer takes place in 1537, by order of King João III and strongly influenced by the Monastery of Santa Cruz. It was the only university in Portugal until 1911.

The University of Coimbra was for several centuries the only university in the cultural and scientific universe of Portuguese influence, except for the period between 1559 and 1759, when it coexisted with the University of Évora. It had a universal impact in a period of history in which Portugal and Spain structured the first empires of world scale in the age of expansion and maritime discovery.

First university cluster following urban expansion

The university reform of King João III, and the subsequent definitive transfer of the institution to Coimbra, led to the development of a cluster in order to accommodate the great student influx and to promote a continuous award of academic degrees. Rua da Sofia is an example of an urban setting of the time, a new paradigm and a European pioneer model. It was planned as a new structuring urban axis at the edge of the city with a specific program – to serve the university.

Model of new architectural technologies

Since the sixteenth century, the University of Coimbra went through several architectural experiences representing new typological models at the aesthetic, artistic and programmatic level. That is the case of the church and cloister of Colégio da Graça and Colégio de Jesus.

The University palace

The University of Coimbra had its origins in the group of buildings known as Paço das Escolas. It corresponds essentially to the oldest royal residence in the country, the former Royal Palace of Coimbra. Its uninterrupted use, 5 centuries before the installation of the University, with continuous building and consolidation works make it a unique and absolutely original building in the context of European university architecture.

The exceptional Joanine Library

Founded as a study library to be used by the university community, it is recognized as one of the most dazzling libraries in the world. It owes this attribute not only to its form and decorative richness but also to an invaluable bibliographic collection comprising about two hundred thousand volumes, dated between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, which can still be consulted today.

During its history of more than seven hundred years, the University of Coimbra has undergone several reforms in various fields of knowledge and teaching, which are reflected in its built heritage: from the Joanine to the Pombaline reform, from the action promoted by the Estado Novo to the democratisation of education and the subsequent expansion of its premises.

Secular academic traditions

A number of symbolic practices are associated with cyclical academic festivities, their origins being lost in seven centuries of history. That is the case of the academic culture (Honoris Causa PhDs, Solemn Opening of the Academic Year, etc.) as well as spontaneous gatherings such as the Latada parade.

Cultural and Scientific Expansion

As a literary hub and a centre for spreading new ideas, the University of Coimbra had and still has an extremely important role in forming and simultaneously incorporating new knowledge that since the Discoveries has changed the world’s scientific panorama.

Cultural and scientific dissemination through an academic press

The University of Coimbra took on a key role in developing and promoting scientific research. The first academic press, the Real Oficina da Universidade, dates back to the sixteenth century. Others would follow suit in the academic circle such as the Real Colégio das Artes, Companhia de Jesus and the Monastery of Santa Cruz de Coimbra.

An important science and biological heritage collection

The University of Coimbra houses several collections of scientific objects and specimens gathered mainly since the eighteenth century, whose importance goes beyond national borders, due to its enormous variety and quantity of original objects. Its Natural History and Physics collection stands out among others. Interconnected with these scientific objects is the enormous biological heritage present in its Botanical Garden.

Consolidation, dissemination and expansion of the Portuguese language

As the seat of the only Portuguese university, Coimbra became, over the centuries, an important cultural centre, having spread its influence on the linguistic knowledge of its students, who would eventually influence the people of other geographical spaces. Many of its students became notable writers.

Formation of the Portuguese State

The University of Coimbra was responsible for shaping the main national leaders. It was one of the main and most energetic institutions to participate in the ideological formation of the Portuguese State over the centuries. Considered the country’s political “thermometer”, the university followed its political and social upheavals, oscillating between demonstrations of support to existing regimes or standing in their opposition.

Elite formation in a multi-continental space

Given its exclusive status for a long period of time, the University of Coimbra played a leading role in the formation and acquisition of competences, with a strong focus on the exercise of managerial, diplomatic and governmental tasks. Being the only university in the entire geographic space of Portuguese administration, its action extended to the training of professionals to act in these territories.

Model of scientific heritage exhibition

Aware of the importance and value of its large collection of scientific objects, the University of Coimbra decided to publicly expose them in a renewed and modern museum structure. The Science Museum is already operating in the renovated Chemical Laboratory and the second phase of its installation in the College of Jesus is underway.

Model of integration of archaeological and architectural heritage

Archaeological interventions carried out in recent years enabled the identification and rescue of a series of objects and architectural structures. These will help improve the knowledge of the history and material evolution of the University of Coimbra as well as provide evidence for written or cartographic sources.

Model of restoration of historic heritage

All the restoration works carried out in the architectural heritage of the University of Coimbra have been guided by the respect for the concepts, methods, techniques and best practices of architectural rehabilitation prevailing in each historical epoch. The University of Coimbra intends to develop proposals aimed at correcting, balancing and pursuing this effort as a factor of economic and social development, and with respect for people, their culture and social organisation, and for their differences.

Noteworthy are four major architectural and historical nuclei that correspond to the moments of creation, development, restructuring and consolidation of the University of Coimbra:

— Colégios da Rua da Sofia, where the history of the University began

— Pátio das Escolas, the heart of the University of Coimbra, with mozarabic sediments, memories of the 1st Portuguese dynasty, and one of the most beautiful libraries in the world

— Buildings of the Pombaline reform testifying to the revolution of knowledge in the eighteenth century

— Complexo do Estado Novo, witnessing the change of Alta de Coimbra.

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