Impressions of Portugal, Belém

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (western profile)

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (western profile)

Illustrious Gama, whom the waves obey’d,
And whose dread sword the fate of empire sway’d.
—Luís de Camões (from Os Lusíadas)

The Museu Coleção Berardo, described as “the main museum for modern and contemporary art in Portugal,” lured us to spend a day in the Lisbon parish of Belém. The Museu is housed in the vast Centro Cultural De Belém (Belém Cultural Center or CCB), which was “erected as a showpiece for Portugal’s 1992 presidency of the European Union.” [Time Out Lisbon, p. 98]

18 IMG_0603_edited-1As monumental projects often do, the CCB was apparently born amidst controversy over its cost and design, but seems, at least by some accounts, to have “settled into its role as host of cultural events and, since 2007, the priceless collection of modern art.” [Time Out Lisbon, P. 98] In a serendipitous cross-Atlantic-to-Pacific Ocean connection, music coming up, though not in time for us, included John Adams’s A Flowering Tree, with Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa’s Principal Conductor Joana Carneiro, who is also Music Director for the Berkeley Symphony in California, conducting. Concerts cost, though I think not a lot, but the Museu is free, and visitors included parties of schoolchildren in easy-to-spot colored hats. I’d have loved to know what they liked best of what they saw, and what least.

Belém, Park &amp Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Belém, Park & Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

As we explored Belém, glimpses of the complex strata of Portuguese history came into view. While I’d seen photographs of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery), Torre de Belém (Belém Tower), and Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), I didn’t know, until they loomed in front of us, that Belém is where they could be found. Of the Monumento Combatentes Ultramar, we started the day knowing nothing at all.

Monumento Combatentes Ultramar

Monumento Combatentes Ultramar

Walking along the Monumento Combatentes Ultramar provided the first unsettling moment, when I realized that, unlike so many monuments I’ve seen elsewhere in the UK, continental Europe, and the US, the Portuguese war dead included no one from World War II: Portugal, under Salazar, had remained neutral. The war memorial instead commemorated those who died in the 1961-1974 Portuguese Overseas War, to which the African countries involved give a starkly different name: War of Liberation.

Salazar’s mark on Belém’s landscape is also evident in the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), erected initially as part of the Portuguese World Exhibition of 1940. Time Out Lisbon breezily advised that Salazar mounted the Exhibition “to divert attention as World War II raged around neutral Portugal.” [Time Out Lisbon, p. 98] Though perhaps it’s true, I’ve found no confirmation, and the comment bypasses a more deep-seated agenda: the legitimization of the Salazar regime.

The double centenary celebrated at the Exposição do Mundo Português (Portuguese World Exhibition) held in Lisbon between June and December 1940 was the first major cultural event of the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship and marked the high-point of its ‘nationalist-imperialist’ propaganda. Staged to commemorate the foundation of the nation in 1140 and independence from Spain in 1640, the Exhibition became a vehicle for the diffusion and legitimization of the dictatorship’s ideology and values in which the idea of the nation was (re)constructed through a series of carefully-planned images, myths and symbols.

. . . .

The choice of Belém, a district of the city located on the shores of the Tagus river earmarked for urban renewal, as the site for the Exhibition was heavily symbolic. The buildings at Belém are the architectural representations of the Manueline era when Portugal was a leading power and pioneer of maritime discoveries. [David Corkill and José Carlos Almeida, Commemoration and Propaganda in Salazar’s Portugal: The Portuguese World Exhibition of 1940, pp. 1, 14]

Corkill and Almeida go on to state, by way of explanation, that Belém “is indelibly linked to the messianic imperial idea.” I thought that an all-too-convenient shorthand from the prism of modern logic, flattening Portugal’s complicated history into a single layer. I wanted to know more.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (detail)

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (detail)

The monument stands on the Tagus River estuary, the river from which carracks and caravels voyaged out to Africa and India centuries ago. Its design is based on the prow of a caravel, at the end of which Henry the Navigator, holding a model carrack, is flanked by monarchs, explorers (including Vasco da Gama), cartographers, artists, scientists, and missionaries of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. From large design to smallest detail, the monument thrusts dramatically seaward, into the unknown.

No matter its genesis, the monument is unquestionably sculptural kin to Luís de Camões’s 16th century paean to the Age of Discovery. From the first lines of Os Lusíadas, there can be no doubt about the heroic ethos of the tale:

ARMS and the Heroes, who from Lisbon’s shore,
Thro’ seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the wat’ry waste,
With prowess more than human forc’d their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they wag’d, what seas, what dangers pass’d,
What glorious empire crown’d their toils at last,
Vent’rous I sing, on soaring pinions borne,
And all my country’s wars the song adorn;

. . . .

Let Fame with wonder name the Greek no more,
What lands he saw, what toils at sea he bore;
Nor more the Trojan’s wand’ring voyage boast,
What storms he brav’d on many a perilous coast:
No more let Rome exult in Trajan’s name,
Nor Eastern conquests Ammon’s pride proclaim;
A nobler hero’s deeds demand my lays
Than e’er adorn’d the song of ancient days,
Illustrious Gama, whom the waves obey’d,
And whose dread sword the fate of empire sway’d.

The Lusiad, or The Discovery of India, an Epic Poem, Luís de Camões, Tr. William Julius Mickle (1910)

Mickle, in the introductory material to his translation of Os Lusíadas, waxes fulsomely, albeit from an early 20th century, pre-World War I, perspective:

Camoëns was the first who wooed the modern Epic Muse, and she gave him the wreath of a first lover; a sort of epic poetry unheard of before; or, as Voltaire calls it, une nouvelle espèce d’epopée; and the grandest subject it is (of profane history) which the world has ever beheld. A voyage esteemed too great for man to dare; the adventures of this voyage through unknown oceans deemed unnavigable; the eastern world happily discovered, and for ever indissolubly joined and given to the western; the grand Portuguese empire in the East founded; the humanization of mankind, and universal commerce the consequence!

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (detail)

Padrão dos Descobrimentos (detail)

Mickle’s description of the scene in Belém on the departure of Gama and his crew, whether apocryphal or real, is equally dramatic:

The beach was covered with the inhabitants of Lisbon. A procession of priests, in their robes, sang anthems and offered up invocations to heaven. Every one looked on the adventurers as brave men going to a dreadful execution; as rushing upon certain death; and the vast multitude caught the fire of devotion, and joined aloud in prayers for their success. The relations, friends, and acquaintances of the voyagers wept; all were affected; the sight was general; Gama himself shed manly tears on parting with his friends, but he hurried over the tender scene, and hastened on board with all the alacrity of hope. He set sail immediately, and so much affected were the thousands who beheld his departure, that they remained immovable on the shore, till the fleet, under full sail, vanished from their sight.

This was, after all, a remarkable chapter not only in Portuguese, but also world history, and its hold on the imagination can’t help but be one of enduring force: even in Lisbon’s metro system, images of navigators abound.

In the 1930’s, Fernando Pessoa grappled with this legacy in Mensagem (Message). António Ferro, the director of Salazar’s National Office of Propaganda, encouraged Pessoa, whom he knew from their days in the literary avant-garde, to compete for the Office’s poetry prize, “whose guidelines called for works denoting ‘a strongly Portuguese inspiration and, if possible, a lofty sense of nationalist exaltation.’” [Message, Fernando Pessoa, tr. Richard Zenith, pp. 7-8]  Pessoa entered Mensagem and won the prize for “single poem, or a group of poems.”

Pessoa explained to a puzzled colleague that he was “a mystical nationalist, and in contradiction to this, many other things.” [Message, p. 8] He had hopes, soon dashed, that Mensagem’s publication came at “a critical moment . . . in the remodeling of the national subconscious.” [Message, p. 8]

The book is unquestionably nationalist, but to what purpose is less clear. In Zenith’s words, “Among people whose literary tastes are guided by their political persuasions, those on the right tend to view Message as a national monument, and those on the left as an accomplished work that is nonetheless suspect, tainted by reminiscences of the nationalistic ‘Estado Novo.’” [Message, p. 9] Zenith argues that both views err and sets out in detail his case for why, including this:

On one level, Message was conceived as a lyric expansion on The Lusiads. . . . Pessoa, who criticized Camões’s poetry for being stylistically archaic even in its own day, seems to have hoped that his own poetic version of Portugal’s imperial history would serve as a material proof of his superiority over the old master. But a caveat is in order. . . . What mattered was not that he be the Super-Camões but that Camões be in some way superseded—not forgotten or despised, just renewed, reincarnated—and that Portuguese literature be revitalized, modernized. [Message, p. 15]

I end, for now, where Pessoa’s Message begins:

Europe, stretched out from East to West
And propped on her elbows, stares
From beneath her romantic hair
With Greek eyes, remembering.

Her left elbow is pulled back;
Her right forms an angle.
The first, lying flat, says Italy;
The second says England and extends
The hand that holds up her face.

She stares with a fatal, sphinxian gaze
At the West, the future of the past.

The staring face is Portugal.

[Message, p. 30, “The Field of the Castles”]

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Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine. For more information on Pessoa’s Mensagem, click here.

9 thoughts on “Impressions of Portugal, Belém

  1. David N

    Unexpected take as ever, Sue, but what about the CLOISTERS? A glory of religious art. I admit I was reeling from food poisoning when we went, but they were still impressive to me in that state. Presume the Cultural Centre has sprung up since we went. Time to return to Lisbon.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Ah, yes, what about the Cloisters. As I wrote this post, I thought (I truly did), David is going to ask about this. I’m afraid all I can tell you is that, in the time we had, they proved to be a bridge too far. Needless to say, I fully endorse your sentiment, “Time to return to Lisbon.”

      1. David N

        I know how it is. During my four days in Tallinn this time, I thought ‘I MUST see the Dance of Death in St Nicholas Church. And did I? No. But it will be one thing saved to show J assuming we spend a night or two there in July…

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – I hadn’t realised Portugal was neutral during the War … but thinking about the African countries – Mozambique, Angola … now I think about I heard no mention of WW2. Fascinating history you’ve give us here … and I loved the slide show – one day I shall get to Lisbon … cheers Hilary

  3. Steve Schwartzman

    Ah, Susan, you bring back more memories. Even in the beginning Portuguese class I took in 1965, the teacher (whose last name was Ramalhete) brought up the poem by Pessoa with which you closed, and whose first line has stayed with me all these years later:

    “A Europa jaz, posta nos cotovelos…”

    In rereading the original now with a map of Europe in front of me, I still can’t make out the English connection. England is supposed to be holding out a hand that the face is leaning on, yet the face turns out to be Portugal (which I can easily see as the face of Europe in its own right, but not having anything to do with England or even more generally with Great Britain). Maybe Pessoa was looking at a Cubist map of Europe.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I am so glad I was able to find an English translation of the book while in Lisbon. I couldn’t make out that part of the map, either, and I think you’re on to something with the idea of a Cubist map. Love that.

  4. shoreacres

    I’ve never seen the map of Europe as envisioned by Pessoa, although now, with a bit of looking, I can see the image. What gave me pause is the strong sense that Europe is prone, perhaps having tripped over history and done a face-plant. Portugal is looking westward, but her perspective isn’t quite as heroic as Salazar hoped, or Pessoa intended. The view from ground level rarely is.

    I was interested in those names, too: the Portuguese Overseas War, aka the War of Liberation. It reminded me of the various names given to a certain conflict in our nation: the Civil War, the War of Secession, the War Between the States, and The Recent Unpleasantness. The fact that, in the early 1900s, one of my own relatives could refer to the Civil War as the “recent unpleasantness” is as interesting as any of the names. He was at least forty years beyond his own participation in that war, and yet he felt it “recent.” Today, social-media-recent seems to be about 40 seconds.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Once again, you offer a gem of perspective in every line of your comment. “The view from ground level rarely is” I find particularly perceptive. I just finished reading a book in which a journalist carefully reported on a set of events and resultant decision-making from a “ground level” perspective. Even though some good came arguably out of the processes on which he reports, from ground level the predominant sense is of people blindly groping through an impenetrable fog.

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