Sunday, 19 March 2017

Lisbon: Aguas Livres Aqueduct

I always think of aqueducts as typically Roman, having grown up near one of those, but this one is 18th century.

Of course, I had to go for a walk along it. Unfortunately, it's locked at the far end, so I couldn't get into the woods on that side. It's good for a view of Lisbon though.

Infrastructure is a marvelous thing.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Sintra: Palácio da Pena

Pena is an 18th century Romantic palace and park belonging to the Portuguese royal family. Many palaces exist to display status at every turn, but one like this is more of a walk-in (live-in, for the original owners) piece of installation art. Here they played at being lords and ladies out of medieval fantasies, or artists, musicians and poets instead of rulers. Notwithstanding the fact that their ownership of this artwork was based on extraordinary privilege and still requires a small army to maintain, we get to enjoy it now.

Roughly speaking, Romanticism encourages the viewer to project their emotional and spiritual states onto landscapes and architecture in a way that's intended to be cathartic. If I were to make a formal analysis of its strategies, I would note the range of environments as you move through it, the changes in scale, from the 360 degree view of the outside world at the pinnacle of the High Cross to the forests of lichen, mosses, ferns and ivy, growing across rocks or in the fissures in trunks or between stones at the Cross's feet. From here, you can see what is going on in Lisbon or watch insects go about their business.

The artists incorporated what history offered them in the form of a monastery, Moorish artifacts, and a distant memory of generations of farmers dating back to Neolithic times, still hunter-gathering on these hills - a tradition which the royal occupants sometimes continued. There are also additions, for example, a simple private temple for solitary spiritual contemplation - a little gift from a father to a son.

The artists also incorporated nature in the forms of piles of rocks filled with significant form, in Romantic terms anyway. But what do they signify? Some have been given human meanings: one supports the statue of a vigilant watchman. It's a lookout post then. Another, rimmed by a low bench becomes a shelter, from the wind at the moment, but usually from the sun. And the others? It's up to the viewer, but perhaps they represent the work of slow time with its powerful forces of transformation, erosion and entropy. They announce a transience that eludes us, since as far as we're concerned they might as well be eternal. And so the artists confront us with scales of time as well as space. It puts us in perspective, and that's another thing Romantic art aimed at.

What most people do instead of appreciating these efforts, is make a beeline for the palace, tour it quickly, snap some photos and leave to see how much of the rest of Sintra they can pack into one day. It's a shame, because although you can stroll through the rooms and have tea on the terrace, that's the extent to which you can actually use the palace part of this artwork. Whereas the park is fully accessible, with the castle as the most prominent piece of architectural backdrop (and by the way, you can take tea on the terrace in exchange for just the park entry fee, which is about half the amount you must pay to walk through the rooms as well).

The park does display a phenomenon that probably only annoys people in the age of photography: it doesn't lend itself much to snapshots. Being 19th century, it would prefer drawings, paintings, poetry, or perhaps to be the setting for a gothic novel or a fairy tale. It adds to the mystique of the Wild Wood to have black trees veiling castles and framing distant blue-gray landscapes. But it doesn't photograph well.

It's necessary to take a lot of time over a place like this. Ideally, every part of it would be experienced at many seasons, times of day and weather conditions. Right now it is cold, because we are surprisingly high up. and the wind is whistling in the pines. Still, it is spring, because there was a fat bumblebee flying low over the periwinkles, and it seems very quiet because hardly anyone comes this way.

After a while, I reached the more sheltered side of the hill where birds sang, then emerged from the woods into the gardens. The scent of the air changed and the sun came out slowly. There are goldfish in the water features and red camelias here, but everything has an abandoned, overgrown air. The ponds are choked with algae and fallen leaves. It was probably not supposed to be like this, but things that are on the way to ruin will also do quite nicely in a Romantic artwork.

Here the paths are many and labyrinthine and the features more numerous: a chapel, a hothouse, walls, fountains and terraces. The air is warm, the ground moist, there are odors of decay and the walls are painted with age.

Now it is the contrasts of light and shadow which are too strong for the camera, while the subtleties of decay and overgrowth are too delicate. The best thing would be to wean myself from it altogether and simply sit in one spot for an hour or more, on the bench known as the queen's throne looking out over the castle for instance, or among the tulips in front of the old hothouse or in a circle of azulejo benches. I stayed all day, and only got to see about half of the park. Really, if I had my way, I would get a place in Sintra and come here every day for a month and work on this idea for a Gothic fairy tale I've had.

Lisbon: Campo Pequeno

Whereas Britain has the Neo-Gothic of places like St Pancras Station, this building of a very slightly later date is Neo-Mudejar (Iberian Islamic style). Also it isn't a station, it's a bullring, which doubles as a space for concerts and similar arena-based events. As if that wasn't enough, it has a shopping center, cafes and a cinema. To be honest I was really only interested in the architecture. There is a museum of Portuguese bull-fighting inside, but I didn't go in.

There are more traditions of bull games than most people realize. I come from a part of southern France that practices abrivado (bull running in the street) and course camarguaise (in which teams of men try to remove ornaments from the bull). The bull is unharmed, and ideally, so are the people, buildings and vehicles. The Spanish corrida is much more like a ritual sacrifice in which the bull ends up dead at the end of a 'fight' with a strong display component. In Portugal, the bull games combine some elements of the ritual display of fighting with some elements that are reminiscent of rodeo. However the bull is not killed, at least not since King Miguel, ruler from 1828 to 1834, made one of his few good decisions.

Lisbon: Praça do Marquês de Pombal

I said before that Lisbon is full of monuments. This one to the Marquis of Pombal might be fairly described as 19th century in style, so it was a bit of a surprise to learn that it dates from the early 20th century.

Actually, its construction was agreed in 1882, but there was a good deal of instability at the time, culminating in the assassination of the king in 1908. Work started during the turbulent First Republic and continued through the coup d'etat that led to the Estado Novo. That's a lot of very different regimes who agreed on giving Pombal a great big monument. It also had three designers and three sculptors.

The funny thing is that Pombal served under one Portuguese monarch who let him pretty much run the country, and another who hated him so much that she placed a restraining order on him! He was an autocratic progressive reformer who dragged Portugal kicking and screaming into the Enlightenment and also proved himself an effective leader and re-builder of Lisbon after the earthquake catastrophe.

Often we don't give much thought to the iconography of these monuments: they're just a bunch of people and animals. This one repays a second glance, and is quite transparent. The renewed Lisbon rises from the earthquake and tsunami, crushing Pluto and Poseidon (bottom front) under her newfound prosperity which is founded on agricultural and marine labor (left and right flank), and ably governed by the great reformist (top) and his able collaborators (upper medallions). Athena, goddess of wisdom (and higher education) sits enthroned in the stern.

Just to make sure everyone really appreciates it, the monument is situated in Lisbon's biggest roundabout, with an avenue-esque park rising up the hill behind it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Lisbon: Convento de Carmo

The roof of this church collapsed during the 1755 earthquake. Unfortunately, it was All Saint's Day, so quite a lot of people were inside when it happened. I overheard a tourist guide explaining that to add insult to injury, since this was a red light district, so the only survivors were those who were 'gainfully occupied' elsewhere, and their clientele. Since it's on a hill, that industry also escaped the tsunami that followed the earthquake. Oh well.

I also heard a couple of guys wondering how come Lisbon has earthquakes. It's because it lies very close to the boundary between the African and Eurasian continental plates. We tend to think of those two simply pushing together to raise mountains, but there's also a slight sideways force along the fault line.

For a while, they thought about restoring the Carmo, but they hadn't got around to it by the 19th century, and by then people had decided that ruins were romantic. I must say, I agree with them. This is a very serene place to hang out on a warm evening (for a small fee).

Lisbon: It's History

This isn't my only source on the history of Lisbon, but it's a particularly nice and accessible one, right underneath the place known as Mirador das Portas do Sol on the way from the Alfama to the Castello (a few steps down the narrow rua Norberto de Araujo.

Then there's José Saramago, who was one of Portugal's most famous authors. I wasn't really attracted to the books he's most famous for, but I'd like to try these ones which are more grounded in place and history.

- Journey to Portugal - a travel book
- Memories of my Youth - memoir of Saramago's childhood
- Baltasar and Blimunda - novel about young lovers in the time of the Inquisition
- The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - novel set in Lisbon around the time of the Spanish Civil War
- The Stone Raft - fantasy in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks off from Europe
- The History of the Siege of Lisbon - a novel about the siege
- The Elephant's Journey - novel about an elephant presented by King João III to Archduke Maximillian

Monday, 13 March 2017

Lisbon: Museu de Marinha

The Maritime Museum is in part of the Jerónimos Monastery, so I got to see some of that without queuing. I'd heard it said that the museum was just room after room of model boats with no real attempt at a narrative. One thing I particularly held against them was the way they hid this beautiful artwork where you can hardly look at it and didn't even bother giving it a label.

The catalog says it's called Vaga da Gloria by Antonio Maria Ribeiro

And then, there's this beautiful cabinet that looks like a reliquary and could be practically a museum in its own right, hidden in a dark corner with no explanations.

The first rooms of the museum are given over to a very good presentation on the Age of Discoveries. The best thing about it is that it makes you realize the Age of Discovery didn't suddenly come out of the blue. It mushroomed out of traditions of ship-building and sea-going which had been a way of life in these parts for centuries, possibly even millenia. Its expansion and development seem to have been due to the political and economic ambitions of the elite, but the resources they drew on were already there.

It really isn't a particularly easy museum to photograph, but here, for example, is a model of the ship in which Vasco de Gama sailed to India, with a real image of St Raphael which accompanied him.

This reproduction of a map, from about the same period shows the detailed knowledge the Portuguese had of the Mediterranean and African coastline and also the fort now known as Elmina and a major center of the slave trade, though at the time it was called A Mina - the (gold-) mine. It was the first European construction in sub-Saharan Africa, about 20 years old by the time this map was made, and it was pre-fabricated in Portugal (stone and all) and delivered by ship!

After that there is indeed room after room of model boats, many of them of a military persuasion.

The one thing I did appreciate was the room dedicated to boating in the lives of ordinary and not particularly wealthy workers.

In sharp contrast, the museum seems to have saved the personal cabin of King Carlos, the one who got assassinated, from his yacht, the Amelia.

The great thing about Lisbon is that you can still see real ships out in the clear light of day. Now I come to think of it, I don't think there were any models in the museum dedicated to container shipping.