By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the seventh post on my spring 2017 trip to Portugal. See January 16, 2018 for a post about a visit to Taylor’s port wine lodge in Porto; February 18 about the National Tile Museum and making a ceramic tile; June 2, 2017 about unexpectedly meeting author/TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon; July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica in Porto; August 20 on cork and its importance to Portugal; and September 3 on custard tarts, a Portuguese specialty.
If the Monument to the Discoveries had been commissioned by Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator during his lifetime (1394-1460), the towering structure might have been labeled by some as a vanity project.
Whatever the size of Henry’s ego, hundreds of years later, he’s the dominant figure at the head of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos that tops out at almost 185 feet tall (56 meters) and dwarfs everything else along the picturesque waterfront in the Belém section of western Lisbon.
His right hand cradles a multi-masted caravel, the maneuverable, swift ship favored by Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the 15th to 17th centuries. In his left is an unfurled map. His right leg juts forward, as if he’s about to step off the prow and onto the latest piece of land that Portuguese explorers have claimed for their royal house.
The limestone and cement monument, based on an earlier, temporary model, was established in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry’s death. It was conceived years earlier by architect Cottinelli Telmo (1897-1948) and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida (1898-1975), who designed the likenesses of Prince Henry and 32 historical men and women who line both sides of the ramps of a structure that depicts a ship’s prow.
Henry, son of King João I of Portugal (1357-1433) and English princess Philippa of Lancaster (1359-1415), was a man of many interests, spanning the fields of politics, religion, economics and science. His foresight was to pay unimaginable dividends for centuries to come. Less charitable descriptions of him might mention greed and religious persecution (the Christian was strongly anti-Muslim).
Bordered by Spain on the east and the Atlantic Ocean on the west, any ambitions to expand Portugal’s holdings were bound to involve going to sea and claiming far-off territory.
The monument covers the years from 1418 to 1525, when the voyagers and their ships were pioneering new routes to the known world and beyond. Also immortalized in stone are navigators, artists, writers, religious figures and other royalty.
Navigator Vasco da Gama (circa 1469-1524) is featured in a prominent position — gripping the handle of his sword in his left hand and the second figure behind Henry — on the east ramp (facing the Tagus river [Tejo in Portuguese]). At almost 30 feet tall (9 meters), Henry is the largest of the figures. The others are in the 23-foot (7 meters) range.
By the time de Gama left what is now Belém in 1497, with three caravels and a supply ship, King Manuel I (1469-1521) was on the throne. November found da Gama rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, then heading up the east coast of that continent. By May 1498, he had crossed the Indian Ocean and put in at Calicut in southwestern India, thus opening up a trade route for fragrant spices such as curry and cinnamon, and the gold and slaves from Africa.
Also among the explorers on the east ramp is Pedro Álvares Cabral, with his hand over his heart. Cabral, of nobel birth, followed a route to India similar to da Gama’s with a few major differences: His expedition sailed with 13 ships, and it called in first on the east coast of Brazil, where he took possession of the country for his king in April 1500. (He originally named it Island of the True Cross.)
Portugal not only colonized the largest country in South America (it declared its independence in 1822), but gained access to, in addition to other riches, gold mines and sugar cane plantations, and transported slaves from Africa to work them.
In service to the rival Spanish crown after a disagreement with Manuel I, Portuguese-born explorer Ferdinand Magellan (circa 1480-1521) led the expedition that was first to circumnavigate the globe. Fernão de Magalhães (in Portuguese) is also on the east ramp of the monument, right behind Cabral. His route, with five ships and 270 men, went west from Spain in September 1519, down the east coast of South America and in October 1520 into the eponymous Strait of Magellan, the passage between Tierra del Fuego (and its islands) and the mainland.
Less than five months later — March 1521 — they had reached the Philippines. In late April, Magellan and some of the sailors were killed in an island tribal skirmish. Only one ship made it back to Spain, in September 1522, under the command of Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano.
On the spacious square leading to the monument is an attractive red-and-black Compass Rose, a gift from South Africa, measuring about 165 feet (50 meters) in diameter. Some sources say the design is composed from inlaid limestone; others say it’s marble.
At the center is a maplike element illustrating the continents, with dates and named caravels showing the explorers’ main 15th- and 16th-century routes. Cobblestones in alternating waves of tan and black surround the Compass Rose.
Past the Compass Rose, heading toward the river, several steps lead to the interior entrance of the monument, where visitors can climb 267 stairs or take an elevator to the viewing platform (included in the entry fee) and a panorama of the Belém area. Exhibits and a film are on a lower level.
Also from the entrance side, an enormous, multistory sword of Avis centered on a stylized cross. The website says these symbols indicated “the growth of the empire and faith.”
In addition to the monument, there is much to see in Belém, including the Torre de Belém (tower built 1514-20); the very grand and imposing white limestone Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (monastery), home to the tombs of Camões and da Gama, an archaeological museum and a maritime museum; a war memorial; the 16th century Palácio de Belém, the working residence of Portugal’s president; Antiga Confeitaria, famous for its custard tarts (see September 3, 2017 post); and other sights.
Quick reference: Monument to the Discoveries, Avenida Brasilia 1400-038. Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays October to February, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. every day March to September; closed January 1, May 1 and December 25. Admission: 5 euros (about $6.15); check website for discounts. No cost if just looking at the exterior Compass Rose and figures on the monument. http://www.padraodosdescobrimentos.pt