Tuesday, 9 July 2013

From Thames to the Tagus

This third posting took us from a classroom in Bloomsbury to a sunny City square in Lisbon. I adore Lisbon; that sweepingly elegant capital, with its varied architecture, network of classic trams and astonishing vistas, the friendly people and the food...I shall stop before I get carried away with the sensory memory of a couple of weeks in Portugal too many years ago. Given that the class began with traditional poetry and literature, it was with great pleasure and interest that we heard about the importance of early modern Lisbon's river and the part it played in shaping the style of architecture beloved by the outward looking, trade obsessed royalty.

Rivers play an essential part in shaping the iconic image of a city, indeed as Zoltán Biedermann stated, rivers are a part of the moral geography of towns'. Early modern maps of London, Venice, Florence and those seen in the BL demonstrate that cities were proudly conscious of their image and they were willing to spend money promoting themselves. He then turned to Lisbon.

Lisbon's estuarial River Tagus appears in classical poetry as a source of great riches, as Catullus writes 
'  ..... inde tertia
Hibera, quam scit amnis aurifer Tagus'
In the 15th century the city sat on one side of the river and there was no architectural connection with the water; old maps show that the focus of the town was around a public square higher up instead. At the time of Manuel I The Fortunate (reigned 1495-1521), Portugal was at the height of its powers, managing half the world through trade, commerce, plunder and might. The king recognised the importance of this stretch of water in linking the city to the outside world and decided to build a new royal residence right on the front.

Sadly for architectural, social and art historians, we don't know exactly what this palace was like because it was a victim of the earthquake in the 18th century. It was replaced with the grand open space we see now, the Praça do Comércio, or Paco as it is known. What we do know is that it wasn't just a palace but also a warehouse, customs house, magazine and storage facility, so he was sitting on the commerce and source of wealth of his realm. This was unusual among his kingly counterparts who tended to split trade and the seat of power, Francis I of France called him the spice/merchant king'.

So how do we reconstruct his palace? What contemporary architectural clues still exist? Belem Tower is the most obvious example of a building from this time. It's most definitely not classical in style but Moorish/Gothic. Biedermann suggests that this was a playing with oriental forms, taking inspiration of what is far away, miles from where the river takes you. Belem Tower carries the iconography of the river with ships, ropes and exotic animals on the buildings. The ropes are not a biblical but navigation reference and the rhinos once again suggest distant far lands. Manuel was the first king to see a rhino and he sent one to Italy and famously Durer sketched it in 1515.

A further clue to his architectural tastes can be extrapolated from his deeply medieval-style religion. One of his buildings was by the river and is called Jeronimos Monastery. The monastery is the resting of Portuguese great and good, for instance Vasco da Gama. This is late Gothic/early modern Gothic style and classed as 'modern' (as opposed to antique). The classical style had reached Portugal but this was a conscious rejection of it, and seemingly of mainstream continental Europe. There is this ambiguity to Manuel; a refusal to embrace Renaissance style and yet he was at the forefront of  discoveries and early capitalism. He was obsessively interested in material power, yet thoroughly religious and dedicated to missionary work.

One of the maps of Martin Waldseemüller shows Manuel in a very ambiguous way. He is seated on a sea creature, ruling the waves in a way that suggests Neptune and yet the crown, sceptre and flag sets him clearly apart as a Portuguese king in charge of his oceans; all of which enable his fleets to bring back riches to the River Tagus and Lisbon.

This was probably one of the more surprising lectures of the Summer School because we felt like we'd left the familiar world of the Thames behind and actually sailed off on one of the ships leaving the Port of London. The river is only the start/end of the journey; the actual voyage takes place far away in strange oceans and this talk had given that hint of exotica.

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