25th January 2021

The library of Sigismund II Augustus – a royal book-lover’s collection

The library of Sigismund II Augustus, the last male representative of the Jagiellonian dynasty, was one of the most outstanding of its day in Europe. It is estimated that the monarch may have collected more than 4,000 works. But it is not just its size, itself significant by European standards, that makes the royal book collection one of the key achievements of Renaissance book-collecting. It is also the library’s comprehensive nature. The collection includes works containing the latest knowledge in a full range of fields, from theology, philosophy and law to medicine, history and astronomy.

Sigismund II Augustus employed agents to source books for his library. Before he ascended to the Polish throne in 1548, those agents included humanists such as Andrzej Trzecieski the Older and his son Andrzej Trzecieski the Younger, both of them leading figures in bringing the Reformation to Poland.

Sigismund II Augustus’s keen interest in his ever-growing collection of books is evident not just from the sums of money generously allocated from the royal purse to the purchase of books but also from the fact that the monarch employed a series of librarians on a permanent basis. The first of these librarians was Jan z Koźmina, followed by Stanisław Koszutski and finally Łukasz Górnicki, who made a lasting contribution to the history of Polish culture as the author of Dworzanin polski (A Polish Courtier) among other works.

All the books in the royal collection featured the same leather binding, not just protecting them from damage but also adding greatly to their aesthetic value. The bindings are a canvas for the skills of the best craftsmen in the country, including the bookbinders Dawid and Jerzy Moeller from Cracow. There are words Sigismundi Augusti regis Poloniae monumentum tooled on the lover cover. The Latin word “monumentum” can mean a “monument”, “memorial” or “reminder” – in all probability the King wanted his collection to show future generations that he had a love of knowledge and beauty.

Towards the end of his life, Sigismund II Augustus’s favourite residence became Knyszyn in Podlachia, conveniently located on the road connecting the Polish Crown with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is thus no surprise that he decided to move his library to the nearby town of Tykocin. In his will, the monarch left the collection to the Jesuits of Vilnius, but this wish was never fully realised. After his death the library was scattered and a large part of it disappeared. Today around 700 volumes from the collection are known, held by various institutions mainly in Poland, Russia, Sweden and Lithuania.

The National Library of Poland houses the largest collection of surviving items from Sigismund II Augustus’s library, some 160 works bound into 106 volumes. Most of the items – 148 works in 95 volumes – come from the collection of the former Library of the Zamoyski Fee Tail (Biblioteka Ordynacji Zamojskiej).

All the books from the royal collection held by the National Library can be accessed via the POLONA digital library.

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