The resilient beauty of Lisbon

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon woke up with the rumble of a devastating earthquake. By the end of the day the city was covered with ashes and rubble, stripped of its magnificent buildings and opulent commerce.

What was left? In the words of Alfredo Mesquita: “There was still the Tagus river, blue and bewitching, cloaked in velvet by the crystal clear sky which is studded with stars by night and gilded with sunlight by day. And the noble, melancholic majesty with which the city reclines, its feet bathing in the waters, elegant and regal, on the throne of its seven hills.”

Alfredo Mesquita, Lisboa, Empreza da História de Portugal, Livraria Moderna, 1903.

The Portuguese oranges of Louis XIV

As laranjas Portuguesas de Luis XIV, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

“Portugal,” “Portugal,” cried the street vendors in 17th century Paris. They were selling a novelty fruit: sweet oranges from Portugal. European oranges were bitter, good only to make marmalade.  That all changed when the Portuguese brought sweet-orange trees from India and China. These trees produced the most fashionable fruit in Europe. Portuguese oranges were so expensive, that Moliére used them in his play The Miser to signify extravagance. Louis XIV, who thought that sweet oranges looked like the sun, adopted them as his personal symbol and did not rest until he had his own “orangerie.”

If you visit Portugal, order a freshly squeezed orange juice in an outdoors café in an old neighborhood. Imagine yourself in the 17th century. Enjoy this luxurious drink that only kings and nobles can afford. Doesn’t it taste sweet?

In love with Lisbon

Panoramic views of Lisbon, Luis Pavão, chromogenic prints, 1990.

In 1581 a Spaniard came to Lisbon and fell madly in love with a Portuguese woman. There is nothing unusual about this incident; it happens all the time. What is uncommon, is that this Spaniard was also a great writer: his name is Miguel Cervantes. Here’s how Cervantes describes Lisbon in his novel, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda:

“Here love and honesty go hand in hand, courtesy never lets arrogance swagger, and bravery keeps frailty away. Its residents are pleasant, polite and discrete in matters of love. This is Europe’s largest city, the gateway to the treasures of the Orient, which from here flow to the world. Its busy harbor accommodates countless vessels and an undulating forest of ship masts. The beauty of the women enchants and arouses, the bravery of the men astonishes. In sum, this is the land that offers the most copious and holy tribute to heaven.’’

We do not have a portrait of the Portuguese woman who enchanted Cervantes, but the photos above show the splendor of the city that so impressed him (if you click on the images, you’ll see them on a larger scale).  Luis Pavão, a wonderful Portuguese photographer, created these panoramic views without any digital gimmickry. He took these photos with a camera that he built using a design proposed by the Lumiére brothers in 1901 .

This is Europe at its best: a place where a Portuguese photographer uses the forgotten plans of two French dreamers to illuminate the words of a Spanish writer who fell in love with Lisbon at first sight.

Click here to see more work by Luis Pavão on his website. You can see a photo of his panoramic camera on the top left side of his homepage.

The tower of Belém

The Belém tower, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2011.

Many guidebooks describe the tower of Belém as a chess piece forgotten on the Tagus river. The poet Fernando Pessoa thought that there is much more to the tower than this first impression. In 1925, he wrote an English-language guide to Lisbon, titled “What the Tourist Should See.” This book, discovered only in 1988, was meant to restore Lisbon to its rightful place as one of the great European cities. Here’s what Pessoa writes about the tower of Belém:

“This marvel of oriental architecture was erected in the Restelo beach, famous as the point from which the ships sailed forth for the Great Discoveries, and was meant for the defense of the river and of the Portuguese capital. It was King Manuel I who ordered its erection; its was built within the river, and the project is due to the great master of “laced” architecture, Francisco de Arruda. It was begun in 1515 and completed six years afterwards. Later the river sank away, from that point, leaving the Tower definitely connected with the shore. […]

The Tower of Belem, seen from the outside, is a magnificent stone-jewel, and it is with astonishment and a growing appreciation that the stranger beholds its peculiar beauty. It is lace, and fine lace at that, in its delicate stonework which glimmers white afar, striking at once the sight of those on board ships entering the river. It is no less beautiful inside; and from its balconies and terraces there is a view of the river and of the sea beyond, which is not easily forgotten.”


Nullum est sine nomine saxum

That’s what the Roman poet Marcus Lucanus wrote about Troy. It means “no stone is without a name.”

Portugal has beautiful scenery, wonderful food, perfect weather. But what makes this country truly unique is its history. Africans, Celts, Jews, Moors, Phoenicians, Romans, Suevi, Visigoths, they all shared this corner of the world. They all left their marks on the Portuguese landscape. Monuments to their triumphs, ruins from their defeats are everywhere. No stone is without a name.

A letter to Woody Allen

Lisboa, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2011.

Dear Mr. Allen:

Why don’t you shoot a movie in Lisbon? Lisbon is an ancient city that easily holds its own when compared to Barcelona, Rome, London or Paris.

We wonder whether the Roman name for Lisbon, “Felicitas Julia,” would make a good movie title. Naturally, the title would be up to you, we’re just throwing out ideas.

Lisbon is a city of serious Woody Allen fans. Those who try to live here without studying your movies are ostracized. Eventually, they choose nocturnal jobs or migrate to countries with languages that have no vowels. Just because of you, the clarinet is much more popular than the banjo among Lisbon youths.

The themes of your work are all here. First, beauty. Lisbon has the looks: the Tagus river, the cobblestone streets, the ancient palaces with draperies that could be turned into clothes that would look great on Scarlett Johansson. Second, romance. If this was not a romantic city, why would Ingrid Bergman fly to Lisbon in the last scene of Casablanca? Third, angst. The Portuguese have angst about everything: about the future, about the past, about being invaded by Spain, or worse, losing in soccer to Spain. Fourth, fate. Fado, the word that describes the traditional music of Lisbon, means fate. Which other city sings about fate? Fifth, obsession with fame. We call our periods of occupation by the French the Napoleonic invasions, even though Napoleon was never here. Sixth, mortality. The Portuguese do not recognize the concept of death. We’re still waiting for the return of D. Sebastian, a king who disappeared in the 16th century. We think he is on an extended diplomatic mission.

Lisbon is a movie set that has taken centuries to build and that is ready for you.

Arraiolos

Medieval Arraiolos, Maria Rebelo, gelatin silver print, 2003.

Arraiolos is a picturesque Alentejo village with traditional whitewashed houses and an oval-shaped castle built in 1305.

The town is famous for the production of beautiful needlework rugs. It is also known for the story of an indecisive bride. With her wedding about to start, she could not decide what to wear. She kept hesitating while the guests waited … for two weeks! In the end, she chose to wear only a shepherd’s mantle.

It was well worth the wait to see this Arraiolos bride discover that “less is more” centuries before Mies van der Rohe.