Although not as rich in art and architecture as neighboring Spain, tiny Portugal made its own artistic statement and developed its own style.
From Roman to Romanesque -- Most of the ancient Roman buildings of Portugal were destroyed by a series of invaders who swept over the country.
One of the greatest Roman monuments, Templo de Diana stands in Évora. It dates from either the 1st or 2nd century A.D. Its 14 granite Corinthian columns are still intact, more or less, showing the harmony of classical architecture in Portugal.
Portugal's greatest Roman remains are found at Conímbriga, 16km (10 miles) southwest of the university city of Coimbra.
It really wasn't until the 11th century, when Portugal became a separate kingdom, that architecture took on a national identity. Portuguese art began with the Burgundy dynasty when Romanesque architecture and sculpture were in its heyday.
The architecture was heavily influenced by France but took on characteristics of its own. This architecture in the north of Portugal, bordering Galicia, would survive until the 15th century. Most of the churches built during that time were modeled after the great pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela, which lies north of the Portuguese border.
One of the greatest examples of architecture from this period is the cathedral, or Sé, in the city of Braga, dating from the 12th century. It was originally constructed to replace a church destroyed by the Moors in the 8th century. Major rebuilding in the 16th to the 18th century has destroyed much of the 12th century structure. The most significant remains of the Middle Ages are in the south portal with its six pillars crowned by capitals and ornamented with sculptured monsters and geometric traceries.
By 1185, Alonso Henríques, "The Conqueror," had vastly increased Portugal's territories. Monastic orders moved into the former territories controlled by the Moors. Great monasteries arose, especially the Mosteiro de Santa Maria at Alcobaça, which dates from the 12th century and was founded by Cistercian monks. At the city of Tomar, the Convento da Ordem de Cristo, was built by the Knights Templar.
Of all the Romanesque churches erected at this time, the classic one is Sé Velha standing in the university city of Coimbra, which Afonso Henríques had made his capital. The cathedral evokes a fortified castle, and merges French Romanesque with Peninsula architectural styles.
An even more awe-inspiring church from the Romanesque era is the Sé, or Cathedral, at Évora, dating from 1186. Built in the shape of a Latin cross, it is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic.
The Gothic & Renaissance Eras -- Winning the battle against invading Castile in 1385, João I came to the throne. As the first monarch of the House of Avis, he presided over a flowering of Portuguese art and architecture. This era with Manueline influences would survive for 2 centuries, until 1580, when Portugal fell under the Spanish crown for 60 years.
While the Italian Renaissance style was sweeping parts of Europe, Portugal seemed stuck in the Gothic period.
Begun in the late 14th century, the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitória at Alcobaça remains a glorious monument to this time. It is arguably the most outstanding example of Gothic architecture in Portugal.
When Renaissance architectural styles and art arrived in Portugal, it was most often incorporated into Gothic art, leading to a medley of styles. Gothic sculpture was mainly developed for the adornment of tombs such as the Royal Cloister at Batalha. The royal chapel arches built here were in the original late-Gothic style, but the masonry rising above them show the intricacies of the newly emerging Manueline style.
Portugal was never a leader in art in its earliest centuries, but a primitive painter, Nuno Gonçalves, rose up through the ranks to become celebrated for his polyptych, which he created between 1460 and 1470, depicting 60 portraits of the leading figures in Portuguese history. His masterpiece hangs today in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.
Very little is known about this mysterious artist, not even his exact birth or death dates. However, he was active between 1450 and 1490. He is depicted, among several other historic figures, on the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument of the Discoveries in Belém near Lisbon.
Portugal's Unique Manueline Style -- The style known as Manueline or Manuelino is unique to Portugal. It predominated between 1490 and 1520, and remains one of the most memorable art forms to have emerged from the country. It's named for Manuel I, who reigned from 1495 to 1521. When Dom Manuel I inaugurated the style, Manueline architecture was shockingly modern, a farsighted departure from the rigidity of medieval models. It originally decorated portals, porches, and interiors, mostly adorning old rather than new structures. The style marked a transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance in Portugal.
Old-timers claim that Manuelino, also called Atlantic Gothic, derived from the sea, although some modern-day observers detect a surrealism that foreshadowed Salvador Dalí's style. Everything about Manueline art is a celebration of seafaring ways. In Manuelino works, Christian iconography combines with shells, ropes, branches of coral, heraldic coats of arms, religious symbols, and imaginative waterborne shapes, as well as with Moorish themes.
Many monuments throughout the country -- notably the Monastery of Jerónimos in Belém, outside Lisbon -- offer examples of this style. Others are in the Azores and Madeira. Sometimes Manuelino is combined with the famous tile panels, as in Sintra National Palace. The first Manueline building in Portugal was the classic Church of Jesus at Setúbal, south of Lisbon. Large pillars in the interior twist in spirals to support a flamboyant ribbed ceiling.
Although it's mainly an architectural style, Manuelino affected other artistic fields as well. In sculpture, Manuelino was usually decorative. Employed over doorways, rose windows, balustrades, and lintels, it featured everything from a corncob to a stalk of cardoon. Manuelino also affected painting; brilliant gemlike colors characterize works influenced by the style. The best-known Manueline painter was Grão Vasco (also called Vasco Fernandes). His most famous works include several panels, now on exhibition in the Grão Vasco museum, that were originally intended for the Cathedral of Viseu. The most renowned of these panels are Calvary and St. Peter, both dating from 1530.
"The Great Vasco" was but one of a series of Manueline painters who flourished between 1505 and 1550. These men created a true Portuguese School of Painting, with life-size human figures.
Another leading artist was Jorge Afonso, court painter from 1508 to 1540 and a native of Brazil. He was the leader of the so-called Lisbon School of Painting. There are no existing works that can be definitely attributed to him, however.
Gil Vicente (1465-1537) achieved success as a goldsmith, using precious metals shipped back from South America. He was actually a Renaissance man, also excelling as a playwright, poet, and musician.
Portuguese art declined during the 60-year reign of Spain beginning in 1580. The new Spanish rulers suppressed the unique Manueline style and restored classical motifs from Italy.
Even when the Portuguese took back their country, with the reign of João IV, an artistic revival did not occur until decades later.
Baroque Art (Late 17th-18th Century) -- The baroque style of art and architecture comes from the Portuguese word barroco. Under the reign of King João V (1706-50), the Monastery of Mafra was constructed outside Lisbon between 1713 and 1730. It is Portugal's answer to the more famous Escorial outside Madrid. Rather severe in its lines, the monastery is Neoclassical, except for spired cupolas on its cubic towers.
Obviously, extensive rebuilding had to follow the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon in 1755. As a result of this earthquake, the Terreiro do Paço was created, and it remains today one of the great squares of the world, forming the official entrance to the city of Lisbon.
A royal palace at Quélux was constructed in 1787 and is similar to the palace of Versailles outside Paris. Rococo art, coming in the wake of the baroque, found few adherents in Portugal.
A great sculptor rose out of the 18th century, Joaquim Machado de Castro (1732-1822). He cultivated terra-cotta relief, and did so with great delicacy and restraint.
Late 18th to the 19th Century -- Political upheavals dominated this period. Portuguese architects worked in a medley of styles, their buildings having no national identity. The conservative taste of both the people and the government ruled the day, although Ventura Terra, who died in 1889, was a forerunner of the 20th century international style.
The artist of the day was António de Sequeira (1768-1837), who was court painter in Lisbon in 1802. He drifted into Romanticism, and was mainly concerned with man's personality and purpose. He was also an artist of great perception, and evolved into a master of chiaroscuro, balancing light and shade in a painting.
In sculpture, Teixeira Lopes (1866-1918) became a dominant figure. Born in Porto, he is known for his monument to the novelist Eça de Queirós which stands in Lisbon.
Among painters, Columbano Bordalo Pinheir (1856-1929), achieved renown with his portraits and still lifes. A sense of French Romanticism prevailed in his paintings. He often posed his subject in a dramatic light against a cloudy background.
20th Century -- In the first decades of the 20th century, Art Nouveau and Art Deco began to occupy the architects of Portugal, especially in the cities of Coimbra, Leiria, and Lisbon. The Museu Gulbenkian in Lisbon definitely moved Portugal into the foreground of modern architecture.
From the Porto School of Architecture emerged Álvaro Siza, who was commissioned to restore the Chiado quarter in Lisbon, which was devastated by a fire in 1988. In the 1980s Tomás Taviera distinguished himself by constructing in Lisbon a postmodern Torre das Amoreiras.
In sculpture, the towering figure of the 20th century was Francisco Franco (1885-1955), who designed many commemorative monuments to the dictator Salazar.
No giant figure arose in painting, although many Portuguese modern artists have distinguished themselves, including Almada Negreiros (1889-1970), who was influenced by Cubism, as well as Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1920), who was influenced by the Portuguese azulejos (tiles) in her works, especially the color in her paintings. Amadeo de Souza Cardoso (1887-1918) found his motif in the development of Cubism and shows the influence of his friend, Modigliani.
Lourdes de Castro, José de Guimarães, and Júlio Pomar are among some of the leading contemporary painters of the 20th century.
ART TODAY The arts scene today is thriving. Contemporary works are showcased in important new galleries like the Berardo Museum in Lisbon’s Belém district, the Serralves center in Porto, and the MAAT museum that opened in the fall of 2016.
Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) is perhaps the contemporary artist who has gained most international recognition, after three appearances at the Venice Biennale. She uses colorful textiles, crochet, and lacework to cover and distort familiar Portuguese objects, from ceramic shellfish to a Tagus riverboat.
Paula Rego (b. 1935) divides her time between London and Cascais, where there’s a museum designed by Souto de Moura is dedicated to her work. Her paintings often reflect a sinister, fairytale world populated by powerful, muscular women.
Lately, Lisbon has gained a reputation as a center of graffiti art, including towering works covering abandoned apartment blocks that greet visitors on the way into town along Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo. Vhils (b. 1983) is Portugal’s most renowned urban artist. His haunting portraits carved into the side of buildings have sprung up around the world from San Diego to Sydney, Beijing to Bogota, as well as locations around Lisbon.
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