History And Literature In Lisbon

Lisbon, a town whose name comes from the mythical traveler Ulysses – so they say – , illustrated in the Middle Ages by so many navigators and explorers curious and eager for adventure, shows to the visitor first its drowsy side. It is true that I first visited it on a Saturday, when every man, hence every Portuguese, is resting after a more or less active week; but the walk on the main arteries that double the river and its estuary, which deeply entered the continent, alongside some huge buildings for long-forgotten harbour utilities, gives the impression of a visit through the stone-still town of The Thousand and One Nights. It is early afternoon on a warm April day and, in the absence of massive tourist waves that haven't turned up yet (they avoid this month, which is generally rainy here), few locals are wandering about the streets, waiting for the night, when the entire town livens up. More pleasant is the lounging now, on foot or in the small, ant-sized tram on narrow rails with one antediluvian wagon, which, however, mounts heroically the steep slopes of the seven hills on which the town is erected – like Rome or other important towns, Lisbon is built, according to the legend, on seven hills – on its way to mysterious and enticing destinations such as Prezeres ("pleasures"), which is actually the name of one of the graveyards in town, or Alfama, the old Moorish residential district, guarded by Castelo de Sao Jorge. The fortress, erected on the highest spot in town, on a hill that dominates the banks of the Tajo and the entrance to the fishermen's harbour, has probably very old origins. It was reconstructed and fortified by Arabs in the 9th century, then destroyed in the 12th century, when the town was conquered back by the Portuguese; only the steep walls are left of it, falling abruptly over the modest houses of Mouraria, the Moorish district from the days of yore, offering an extraordinary view towards the river and beyond it, to the opposite shore and to the new bridge, which can be seen, huge, above the estuary. The bronze cannons that lie here and there, leaning against the walls in ruin, belong to an earlier period and have probably been brought for the props effect, for between the ruins and the olive trees contorted by the wind, there are now some luxury restaurants. Lower, set in a square at the corner of the road that goes up towards the fortress, on Largo da Sé, and packed between the narrow streets that preserve the design of the old Arab district, there is the Sé Cathedral, the oldest of those still functional, for it was started in 1150, a little while after the town was conquered back by the famous "cerco do Lisboa," the siege of Lisbon that gives the name of Saramago's best novel and of one of the most charming, simple and fundamental novels of our century, which takes place in this old neighborhood, where the memory of ancient Moors, not only in the whimsical line of the lanes, but also in the formidable fortress-like walls of the cathedral, which prologue the central nave, with few and very high windows, towards the battlements that adorn its superior edges. The Nordic wall of the cathedral includes a fragment of the even older stone precincts of the fortress, dating from the Visigoths' time in the 8th century. There are, obviously, also ancient vestiges in the district, the ruins of a Roman theatre, for instance, or the traces of some Roman thermae, which were found, it seems, under the Moorish fortress. However, they raise little interest in a town keen on its mediaeval and Renaissance past, its age of glory and cultural splendor, in literature and in art, even in the architecture whose traces have mostly been erased by the devastating earthquake of 1755. Only a few areas untouched by disaster remained then, such as the Alfarma neighborhood and parts of Belém, where the brilliant Mosterio dos Jeronimos reigns, like a filigreed jewelry of Mogul India, "a wonder of architecture," says Saramago again, in a book (entitled Viagem a Portugal) that I would compare to Picturesque Romania by Vlahuta, if the distance between the two writers were not so huge; across the highway that gets out of the town, on the way to Sintra, on the shore of the river and with the foot bathing in the waters that surround it from all sides, is the architectonic counterpart of the monastery, the Tower of Belém. Both were built at the beginning of the 16th century by King Manuel I at exorbitant expenses in order to celebrate the success of the expedition made by Vasco da Gama, the discoverer of the real route to the Indies. From here, from the quay where, even today, the square tower can be found, with steel-lattice masts, round at the corners, the navigator had left in July 1497; on this spot was the chapel dedicated to Saint Mary of Bethlehem – where today the monastery can be found – and from its name and the name of Christ's birth place town, pronounced by the Portuguese Belém, there also came the name of the district. More to the west, leaving behind the Belém district and getting out of Lisbon, the highway runs across the resorts on the ocean shore, with the elegant beaches, at Carcavelos, at Estoril (where King Carol II also stayed a little, before leaving for South America) and at Cascaes, today a fancy tourist resort, with luxury hotels and restaurants, a mere village before, the "picturesque fisherman's village near Estoril" from the last World War where Mircea Eliade took refuge in the summer of 1941, in order to work peacefully at his books. Even more to the west, going up the highway that winds up to Sintra, through an old eucalypt forest, one can reach Cabo da Roca, a small promontory swept by winds and by the fine dust of the ocean, where a lonely lighthouse and several blades of dandelion mark the most westward point of our old continent: 38 degrees and 47 minutes north and 9 degrees and 30 minutes west, as the inscription on the landmark – near which, of course, we took a picture of ourselves – tells us. Lisbon is thus, because of the earthquake mentioned above, a largely Baroque city, built in the second half of the 18th century. Baroque – in all the meanings of the word – is also the huge palace in Mafra, an immense construction, whose gigantic imbalance can better be understood from Jose Saramago's Memorial do Convento; it is indeed a pharaonic work, the symbol of which we can grasp better than anyone else, erected in thirty years by some of thousands (you have read correctly: tens of thousands) of workers, supervised by other thousands of soldiers, to reward the fulfillment of King Joao V's wish of having an heir. From the staggering figures by which the guide praises this bizarre thing, gloomy and heavy, I remember: almost nine hundred rooms, over two thousand and five hundred windows, ten hectares wide, over one hundred bells in the two belfries of the church placed in the middle of the construction, with six organs and strange reflexes of the pink and grey stone, in which there are embedded bas-reliefs of white stone and pleasant light effects that pierce through the windows in the tall dome. Highly different from the elegant Manuelin style, which survives here and there in Lisbon, the Baroque constructions are spread all over the town and give it a certain Viennese perspective, which is immediately destroyed by the brilliance of a different sun and the limpidity of a different air. Belonging to the neoclassical baroque is also Stella's church, Basilica da Estrela, dating from the late 18th century, with an elegant dome, built by the Portuguese architect Vincente de Oliveira, with a new and daring solution. Situated in the square with the same name and opposite Jardim da Estrela, a sort of Cismigiu Park, but smaller and enlivened by some palm trees which guard a small lake, with white swans and black ducks with red bills, the church is not only in the centre of Lisbon's diplomatic district, but also in the centre of the different points of architectonic interest, such as the National Assembly palace, from the beginning of the last century, or of artistic interest, such as the National Art Museum, hosted by a 17th century palace, neighboring the museum of Gulbenkian Foundation (that displays paintings by Bosch, Dürer, Holbein, Van Dyck, Nuno Gonçalves, and others).I preferred, however, to stop for a few minutes beyond the vaulted walls of the English cemetery in Lisbon, opposite Jardim da Estrela, very suggestively placed near the British hospital, where I entered with difficulty and after repeated attempts. Here, on a small alley left of the entrance, is the stone sarcophagus of a famous writer: Henry Fielding. Solemn and impersonal in its massive construction, adorned with two pompous and grandiloquent inscriptions, destined to glorify the one who linked beauty to virtue and ugliness to vice (it wouldn't be bad!), and thus defeated the triumphant death (sed mortem victricem vincit), the sarcophagus was built long after the "old writer" (he was forty seven) died here, on October 8, 1754, a few months after he had come to Portugal, hoping that the mild air of the region might ease his pain, and one year before the horrible earthquake I mentioned earlier. In 1830, when the monument was built, it actually replaced another, erected by an admirer of the writer at the end of the 18th century, the French consul in the city. Anyway, in 1772, when Wraxall and Twiss visited Lisbon, they saw Fielding's monument covered by the abundant verdure around, for it had been very simple, "with no stone to indicate that here lies Henry Fielding;" in 1847 though, when lady Quillian, Wordsworth's daughter, searches for it, she expresses doubts as to identification – Rose Macaulay, the author of a book on English travelers in Portugal, tells us – after the tomb had lain for tens of years with no cross or any other sign, as the family's poverty couldn't have afforded but the simple burial. In the sarcophagus that visitors keep coming to see, despite the bolted gates, there may be somebody else's remains than Fielding's. But, what does this matter now? Who knows if inside there is the rich man's or the poor man's ashes, as very well says the Book, only that here it is the poor and not the rich one that is being praised? It is enough that his visit to Lisbon and the tangled history of Fielding's tomb, which might not be his, made me plunge into his late writings, The Covent-Garden Journal and the others, among which the diary of his trip to Lisbon didn't have a chance to go beyond the mere introduction. Nota bene… Excerpted from: Paris. People and Places, Univers Enciclopedic, 1999

by Mircea Anghelescu