Lisbon Portugal has many diverse neighborhoods that are filled with places to explore. The Belem neighborhood is one such place to explore. The neighborhood is known for its seafood restaurants and colorful houses. Although it is about 10 km from Baixa, it is easily accessed by a bus and is well worth the trip.
Showcasing Lisbon’s Age of Discovery in Belem
Belem was the headquarters of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. The caravels set out and returned here on their voyages. Manuel I spent many of the profits that he earned in creating Manueline-style monuments in the area.
The neighborhood has some lovely tropical and an Italian botanical gardens. These include a Tropical and Italian Botanical Gardens, formal French-style gardens, fountains, a number of monuments and multiple public art works in diverse styles.
It also has a large concentration of museums (Coach Museum, Archeological Museum, Maritime Museum, Architecture and Planetarium) and two large art museums–MAAT Museum of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Technology and the Coleccao Berardo Museum of Modern Art (see below).
Palacio de Belem (Royal Palace)
Belem is home to lavish, 16th-century Royal Palace (Palacio de Belem) which has been democratically recycled into the residence of the country’s president. Its riverside location also provides postcard-like views of the dramatic April 25 Suspension Bridge (named after the date of the Carnation Revolution) which was modeled on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, down to the same International Orange-colored paint.
The city, however, is most known for the two primary Manueline-style buildings that celebrate, and spent money from the lucrative spice (especially pepper) trade. This was enabled by Portugal’s unique combination of far-sighted royals, pioneering ship designs, innovative navigation tools and techniques and a number of adventurous explorers (especially Vasco da Gama), bold generals (especially Afono de Albequergue) and deep-pocketed patrons. All came together to launch the Age of Discovery which is portrayed in Belen’s Maritime and Discovery Museums.
The huge, grandiose, Manueline-style monastery was commissioned by Manuel I in 1501, upon Vasco da Gama’s return from India. Financed by a tax on the spices, gems, and gold brought back from the voyage, the massive structure is the primary surviving showcase of original Manueline architecture. The church has a spectacular vaulted nave, beautiful chapels and the tombs of poet Luis Vaz de Cameos and of explorer Vasco da Gama.
Manual I commissioned this Manueline structure as a fortress and the departure point for major trade voyages. As a typical of the Manueline style, the extravagant building combines elements of styles including Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish, and nautical themes that harken back to Portugal’s seafaring heritage. This building has it all, from its Italian Renaissance-style loggia to its Moorish Tower and its nautical-themed rope-braiding.
Monument to the Discoveries
The much more recent (1960) memorial to the Age of Discovery was built to honor the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. The controversial 170-foot tall riverside monument features Henry at the prow of a caravel (holding a model of a full caravel in his hand). The “ship’s crew” consists of dozens of mariners, soldiers, royal patrons and even artists and writers who played important roles in the Age of Discovery. Nearby is a huge, mariner’s compass carved into a paving stone and a huge, enamel map of the world with caravels marking the routes of the 15th and 16th century voyages that created trade links with India and China and trade and colonies that literally spanned the globe, from Africa, to present-day Malaysia and Indonesia, to Brazil and even, through Portuguese sponsorship of Columbus’ voyages, to the accidental discoveries of the West Indies and North America.
Don’t however, ask about Portugal’s role in the slave trade. It is passed over in most museums and few people are willing to mention, much less discuss it.
Coleccao Berardo Museum of Modern Art
Museu Coleccao Berardo is a private art collection located in Belem’s huge, modern Cultural Center which hosts performing arts, music and photography exhibitions as well as a restaurant and bar.
The Museum is intended to trace the evolution of 20th century art through its 1,000+-piece collection. It traces the evolution for figuration art through abstraction and back, to an integration of the two.
Each gallery has an introductory panel that sequentially explains each of the art movements of the century. It includes the motivations for an objectives of each art genre and sub-genre, the role of different artists in the movement, and how it evolved. It then presents transformational and representative pieces for each.
The exhibits begin with the fundamental role of Brancusi, progresses from Cubism to Constructivism, the outsized influence of Dadaism, Abstraction, Surrealism, different styles of Abstract Expressionism and all the way to Pop Art, which accounts for outsized percentage of the collection. It also gives ample weight to lesser-known genres such Futurism, the Bauhaus school, Informalism, and the role of Russian emigres (especially Kandinsky) in pioneering abstraction, Kinetic Art, Op Art.
It also explains dozens of sub-genres, such as Existentialist Figuration (Francis Bacon), Group ZERO, neo-Dadaism and many others with which we were not familiar.
Individual galleries are dedicated to specific artists. A particularly interesting section on Franz Kline shows a video of his amazingly unique approach to creating images using modified flamethrowers, spray-painting of models and capturing images that one would never imagine in the process.
The panels mention (and the galleries usually provide an example of the work) most of the primary artists we associate with each genre—Picasso, Man Ray, Kandinsky, Calder, Vasarely, Jackson Pollock, DeKooning, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and so forth. Representation of these artists, however, is typically limited to a single piece—and typically a minor piece that may or may not be representative of the artist’s body of work. The vast majority of the pieces are from artists we have never heard of. This is often used to advantage, since the best known artists are already overexposed and it provides a chance to learn about unfamiliar artists (not to speak of obscure sub- sub-genres) and how some familiar artists are categorized into these genres.
Overall, it is a very interesting, well curated exhibition, although it probably goes into unnecessary depth in classifying obscure schools and in placing artists into these buckets.
While in Belem, check out Pasteis de Belem. We reluctantly entered a long line in the pouring rain for lunch here. Mercifully, the line moved incredibly quickly. We had a good quick, casual lunch of a large Iberian ham, mozzarella and tomato sandwich and two of its famous Pasteis de Belem custard tarts and a bottle of water—all for less than 10 Euro. Good for a decent fast lunch.