Bibliotheca Thysiana

The Bibliotheca Thysiana on the Rapenburg canal (no. 25) in Leiden was founded by testament in 1653 by the young Dutch jurist Johannes Thysius. It is the only Dutch book collection from the seventeenth century which is housed in the original purpose-built library. The collection contains some 2,500 books and several thousand pamphlets on a great variety of subjects.

Johannes Thysius and his library

Johannes Thysius (1622-1653) was the son of a rich Amsterdam merchant of Southern-Netherlandish origin. He had come to Leiden in 1634 after the premature death of his parents. He lived in the house of his great-uncle Constantin l’Empereur, who was professor of oriental languages at Leiden University. In Leiden Thysius attended the Latin School, and subsequently the university where he read law. He also spent a year and a half travelling on the Grand Tour, which took him to England and France. After his return he obtained his doctorate in law. He never had a professional career however, for in 1653 he died, at the mere age of 31 years.


Remarkably, Thysius stipulated in his last will that his library should be preserved for the ‘public benefit of study’. The intended users of his library in all probability were students, for apart from bequeathing his books, he set aside a substantial sum of money for the construction of a library building at the corner of the Rapenburg and Groenhazengracht, close to the university college where poor theology students of Walloon descent had their lodgings.

The construction of the library was the responsibility of Thysius’ distant cousin, and first curator, Baron Marcus du Tour, who commissioned the Leiden city architect Arent van ’s Gravesande to design the building plans. Van ’s Gravesande had already made a name for himself as the architect of the local cloth hall (Lakenhal) and Mare Church. The total cost of construction, including the interior fittings, amounted to the very substantial sum of 14,500 guilders.

The Bibliotheca Thysiana is unique for more than one reason. It is the only Dutch example from the seventeenth century of a purpose-built library. Public libraries were generally housed in existing buildings, such as former catholic churches or chapels. The library is perhaps the most splendid example in Leiden of Dutch classicist architecture, a style heavily influenced by 16th-century Italian models. Apart from the building, the library is exceptional in that it is created from a private scholar’s book collection. It thus provides an idea of the book buying by early-modern Dutch humanist scholars. Among the library’s furnishings, moreover, is a rare wooden book wheel, which Thysius acquired in 1648.


Although the exterior and interior have witnessed numerous renovations and restorations, the condition of the Bibliotheca Thysiana is still more or less as it was in 1657, when the building was completed. One can even say that the excellent state of preservation can be attributed to the relatively modest use of the library over the centuries.

Finding books in the Bibliotheca Thysiana

The general catalogue of Leiden University Library (Catalogue) provides information on all books and manuscripts in the Bibliotheca Thysiana, as well as on Thysius’ substantial collection of pamphlets, at least those published before 1700 and in the Netherlands.

The printed catalogue of pamphlets, compiled by L.D. Petit and H.J.A. Ruys (see Further reading), provides information on all pamphlets published after 1700 and on pamphlets published outside the Netherlands before 1700.

The printed inventory Bibliotheca Thysiana: Catalogus archief, familiepapieren en koopmansboeken, lists the archival holdings of the library, which are kept in the University Library.

The material held by the Bibliotheca Thysiana can be consulted only in the Special Collections Reading Room of the University Library.


Visiting the Bibliotheca Thysiana

The Bibliotheca Thysiana can be visited by appointment and against payment. A guided tour of ca. an hour costs € 125 for groups up to 20 persons. The Elsevier Room on the ground flour is available for meetings and receptions at a cost of € 150 per session (morning/afternoon; supervision and additional costs not included).

Further information can be obtained from the Special Collections Department:
specialcollections@library.leidenuniv.nl
telephone 071-5272857


Further reading (in Dutch only)

P.J. Blok, ‘De Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden’, Tijdschrift voor boek- en bibliotheekwezen, 5 (1907), 53-61.

O. Blom, De Phoenix van het Rapenburg (Leiden, 1998).

R. Breugelmans, ‘In het teken van de phoenix. De Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden’, De Boekenwereld, 2 (1985-86), 38-45.

B. Büch, ‘Een zorgelijk legaat. De Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden’, in idem, Bibliotheken (Amsterdam, 1984), 89-96.

B. Büch: ‘Wereldwonder aan de gracht’, AD magazine, 4 May,2002, 12-17.

W.M.M. Heynen jr., ‘De familie Thys(ius) alias Keynooge te Amsterdam en Leiden’, Handelingen van de Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen, 88 (1984), 111-116.

P.G. Hoftijzer, ‘Een nieuwe jeugd voor de Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden’, De Boekenpost, 9/56 (2001), 20-21.

C. de Jonge, ‘De “grand tour” van Johannes Thysius’, Jaarboekje voor de geschiedenis van Leiden en omstreken, 68 (1976), 65-80.

J.A. van Lanschot Hubrecht, Johannes Thysius (1621-1653) en de Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden (Châteauneuf de Grasse, 1985).

Th.H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, W. Fock, A.J. van Dissel, Het Rapenburg. Geschiedenis van een Leidse gracht, vol. IIIa (Leiden, 1988), 73-109.

E.M. Mourits, ‘Johannes Thysius en Job Ludolf: een vriendschap’, Jaarboekje voor de geschiedenis van Leiden en omstreken, 92 (2000), 54-74.

J.W. Muller, ‘Uit de geschiedenis der Bibliotheca Thysiana’, Jaarboekje voor de geschiedenis van Leiden en omstreken, 26 (1933-34), 62-90.

H. van Oerle, ‘De bouwgeschiedenis van de Thysius bibliotheek aan het Rapenburg’, Jaarboekje voor de geschiedenis van Leiden en omstreken, 35 (1943), 107-119.

L.D. Petit and H.J.A. Ruys, Bibliotheek van Nederlandsche pamfletten. Verzamelingen van de bibliotheek van Joannes Thysius en de bibliotheek der Rijks-Universiteit te Leiden, 4 vols. (The Hague, 1882-1934).

R. van Roijen, Catalogus archief, familiepapieren en koopmansboeken Bibliotheca Thysiana (Leiden, 1941).

J. Schaeps, ‘Prenten uit de Bibliotheca Thysiana’, Het Leidse Prentenkabinet. De geschiedenis van de verzamelingen (Baarn, 1994), 247-306.

P.A. Tiele, Catalogus van de bibliotheek van Joannes Thysius (Leiden, 1879).

Last Modified: 04-02-2014