I am in Portugal, a country which is as near as can be my second home now. At the weekend, we went on an incredible trip to the Alentejo, the region of Portugal between the river Tejo and the Algarve. Normally a hot dry area, at the moment it is cool and green because of a lot of rain in the late winter. I won’t attempt to describe the whole trip but will focus on our first stop, the town of Évora, where I had two treats that I had missed on my previous visit to the town.
The first was the cathedral. Most famous for its treasurehouse of religious artefacts made of precious metal, works of art, richly embroidered robes, and so forth. More interesting to me was being able to walk around on the roof, and the cloisters with many Moorish patterns in the round windows.
But most startling was the University of Évora. As my title suggests, it is sometimes considered as a claimant for the title of Portugal’s oldest university, though the University’s own information leaflet only claims to be the second oldest. The other two claimants are Lisboa and Coimbra. It seems that Lisboa was founded first. But it disappeared at the very time that Coimbra was founded, and didn’t reappear until the twentieth century. (Or you could say, the University was moved from Lisboa to Coimbra. My Oxford college, Merton, was founded in the district of south-west London of the same name, and moved to Oxford ten years later: Simon de Montfort’s war was raging in 1264, but things were more peaceful ten years later. Which date is the College’s foundation date?)
Anyway, the university of Évora was founded by the Jesuits in 1553, becoming a University six years later as a result of a Papal bull, and closed in 1759 when the Marquis of Pombal expelled the Jesuits from Portugal. It was re-founded in 1973 as a public university. But their leaflet says on the front, “Universidade de Évora, 1559–2018”.
Inside the front gate is a large court, with a fountain in the middle and cloisters round the outside. Leading off the cloisters are doors into lecture halls. I will list the names since I find this quite remarkable.
- The Geography Room.
- The Metaphysical Philosophy Room.
- The Physics Room.
- The Greek Philosophy Room.
- The Aeneid Room.
- The Holy Scriptures Room.
- The Geometry and Astronomy Room.
- The Great Hall.
- The Latin Room, “The Bucolics”.
- The Literary Genres Room.
- The Months of the Year (and Signs of the Zodiac) Room.
- Hunting Scenes Room.
- Scenes of the Countryside, Fishing and Hunting Room
- And another of these.
I observe that there are only two subjects of the mediaeval Trivium and Quadrivium listed there. The absence of Music is particularly surprising since, in those days, Évora was renowned for its music, especially church music.
We looked in all the rooms as far as the Great Hall, which was used for candidates’ oral exams. Each room had azulejos (the celebrated Portuguese blue and white tiles) all the way round, with pictures relevant to the subject of the room. Thus, for example, the Physics Room had an illustration of the famous experiment by Otto von Guericke where he put two metal hemispheres together and pumped out the air; teams of horses were unable to pull them apart. (There is a sculpture illustrating the same experiment in the town of Magdeburg.)
But for me the most striking was the one shown below. This was in the metaphysical philosophy room. I am not sure whether it is a good slogan for metaphysical philosophy, but for mathematics it is near perfect.
We went upstairs in search of the Library, which we eventually found. On the way we passed many professors’ offices of the modern University. Needless to say the subjects represented were rather different: history, social science, and literature.