Friday, February 03, 2006

Postcard from Mafra

It may well be one of the ultimate monuments to ego, but the National Palace of Mafra in the small town of the same name in Portugal is one extraordinary edifice.

It is, I believe, the largest national monument in Portugal. The basilica around which it is built also has a number of 'bigs', including one of the largest church domes in the world, no less than six massive baroque organs, and a library with some 40,000 books, some dating back to the 15th century.

You come on it quite suddenly after a drive of less than an hour from Lisbon, through some very pretty hilly landscape. And it totally dominates the town. I'd seen it before, last year during a coffee stop on a run through the area, but this time it merited a visit, even a short one.

There's a large basilica, as I said. It sits centre front, and from it are large frontages on either side which are one side of the square construction that sets out the palace and the former monasteries.

The palace came about, according to one story, because Portuguese king Dom Joao V wanted to fulfil a vow made when he was desperate to have his wife bear him an heir. Or, to be rescued from some unnamed health affliction. Or, to atone for his sexual excesses. Put the last two together, and there's maybe a conclusion to be made.

It wasn't meant to be so big. Apparently the vow involved setting up a monastery for a dozen or so Franciscan friars. But Joao lost the head a bit on the project, and by the time it was dedicated on his 41st birthday in 1730, it was a full-blown royal palace, a basilica, and enough monastery space for over 300 friars.

More than 50,000 men had been employed in its construction, most of them indentured and reputedly kept on the job by some 7,000 soldiers.

The place was decorated in the best of marble, and artworks commissioned from the best of Italian and local sculptors and painters. The two carillons, totalling 92 bells were brought in from Flanders, and at the time were the largest such ensemble ever assembled.

Indentured workmen or not, the project was costing real money. In a real big way. And in ordinary times, the doubloons just woldn't have been there. Indeed, there's a report on record from the French ambassador to Portugal that 'all the money in Iberia' wouldn't pay for the project.

But the 'Portuguese Tiger' was in full roar at the time, thanks to the discoveries of Vasco da Gama and his seafaring contemporaries. Gold and diamonds in particular were crossing from Brazil in ships loaded to the gunwhales with the precious metal. Often they sank under the weight, or were looted by pirates, but enough got through to satisfy the avarice of the royal-sponsered commerce of the day.

It was such looted riches that built the National Palace of Mafra, and funded many other excesses on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain had a big interest in the Americas, too).

But the old saw that 'you'll never have luck' from bad deeds held true once more. The Portuguese royal family had to flee to Brazil in 1807 when Napoleon invaded the country. Less than three decades later, the monastery was abandoned when all religious orders in the country were dissolved.

The royals eventually returned to Portugal, but had to flee again in 1910 when a Republic was proclaimed, and the Mafra palace was then abandoned.

Today it is a major tourist attraction, and, depending on the guide you get, has 600, 800, or 1,200 rooms. Fortunately only a small few are part of the tour.

I didn't have time to do the tour, but I did take a good look at the basilica, which is why all the pictures with this piece are from the church.

A bit of culture never goes astray.

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