Here we are in the Lisbon’s district of Belem, approaching the white tower, built exactly 500 years ago to defend the Tagus estuary. The concrete jungle and asphalt rivers of Lisbon coexist with the serene park and the breezy walkway along the Tagus (Tejo) shore, just a few dozen meters away.
The wide river promenade was once a setting for an important exhibition: “Portuguese World Fair” took place there in 1940, just at the time when the rest of Europe … well, had other things in mind.
At the starting point, in front of the Belem tower, an unfocused gaze quickly centers at a stone caravel: this is the area from where Portuguese ships departed to explore the unknown continents, back in the epoch of discoveries and glory. The Monument to Discoveries was built on the occasion of the mentioned Fair: Henry the Navigator and many other famous Portuguese of those times are sculpted in stone, with heroic expressions and brave postures, reflecting also romanticization of the epoch and its admiration by the then regime.
However, the structure we see now is not the original one: the monument designed by the architect Cotinelli Telmo in 1940 was not meant to last at all. Like most other exhibits for the Portuguese World Fair, it was conceived as an ephemeral structure of metal support and gypsum coating, to last one summer. And so it was, after a while, in 1943, the monument was demolished, though some politicians found it a very powerful symbol of the nation’s aspirations and wanted to keep it.
There is evidence that the architect himself was against its reconstruction (however, I couldn’t find more details on that issue). But, he didn’t live to see it reconstructed. In 1948, he died after an accident – while fishing, he was dragged by a wave that crashed him against a rock.
All the others thought reconstructing the monument would be great, once the idea was revived in the late 1950s.
And so, in 1960 (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death), it was rebuilt in concrete, dressed with stone, and given some extra functions: exhibition space, auditorium and a viewing terrace on top, to become one of the most visited sites in Lisbon of today. The square in front was decorated with a marble wind rose and a world map depicting Portuguese discoveries, a present from South Africa.
In fact, the history of the monument is all about the political decisions, that made possible both creation of the first, ephemeral one, and building of the present structure, revived in stone. Outliving the poor architect and the Salazar’s regime too, the monument is today symbolizing pride of the glorious Portuguese 15th and 16th centuries. And more universally, facing the unknown and making the world change.
Many Portuguese, not to mention foreign tourists, don’t know the above facts. I am happy to have found out this story in an exhibition on life and work of Cotinelli Telmo, that has just ended in the very monument’s exhibition space.
Photo credits: 1st – from the 1960 brochure issued on the occasion of the monument opening.
The rest of the photos – JS.