Some days the god of travellers smiles down on us and he must have been smiling on the day we stopped at the Palácio da Assembléia Nacional de São Bento, on our way back into the centre of Lisbon from the Basílica da Estrela, to take some photos of the Neoclassical exterior of the parliamentary building. We had finished taking photos of the allegorical Homeland by Simões de Almeida (1938) above the porch and the four sculptures of Prudence, Justice, Strength and Temperance by Raul Xavier, Maximiano Alves, Costa Mota and Barata Feio respectively (1941) and were about to continue on our way when we spotted people entering the building through a side door. We decided to find out what was happening, expecting to be turned away, but to our surprise and joy we discovered that the Portuguese equivalent of the House of Commons was hosting a European Heritage Day and had opened the building to the general public. After passing through an airport-style security check we were handed a glossy self-guided tour brochure in Portuguese and English, which gave detailed information about each area of the building. We were able to wander through the rooms at our own pace and there was no restriction on photography (so much better than the guided tour (with photo restrictions) that I took around the House of Commons in London).
The original building was the Monastery of São Bento da Saúde, designed by Baltazar Alvares and dating from 1598. Parts of the original monastery still exist, but much of the building was redesigned by Ventura Terra in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to make it look more parliamentary. Even if you are not interested in politics, the building is worth a visit for the architecture and the vast collection of art and sculptures by important Portuguese artists throughout. Inside, areas of the original monastery are still evident, such as the atrium with its pink and white marble floor which is part of the original church. The former saints have now been replaced with busts of eminent politicians, a statue of King Carlos I and an incongruous bust of Luís de Camões sculpted by José Aurélio in 1999.
From here a 1930s staircase leads to a landing on the walls of which are two breathtaking triptychs painted by Martins Barata in 1944, The Cortes of Leiria and Agriculture, Industry and Commerce. The Cortes of Leiria depicts the thirteenth-century cortes (parliament) with King Afonso III at the centre surrounded by the clergy, the nobility and, significantly, representatives of the common people. Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, as the name suggests, shows the importance of these three economic activities in fifteenth-century Portugal. In the central panel is Saint Vincent, representing Lisbon as the head of the country. Above the doors leading off the landing are eight pediments and on top of each are sensuous Neoclassical-style reclining figures by Leopoldo de Almeida representing the former Portuguese provinces.
More works of art are on display in the Lobby (also intriguingly known as the Sala dos Passos Perdidos (Hall of the Lost Steps)), which, positioned next to the Session Chamber, is a very grand waiting room and if it looks familiar, it is because this is where TV news reporters often interview politicians. It was designed by Terra in 1895 and its pink and white marble walls are decorated with paintings of former kings and statesmen, while the ceiling is decorated with allegories of concepts such as Homeland by Benvindo Ceia and Law, Justice and Wisdom by João Vaz.
The Lobby leads to the Session Chamber, probably the most famous room in the palace, as the Portuguese news shows the MPs orating and debating here on a daily basis. The chamber dates from 1903 and once again Terra used pink and white marble for the walls. It is dominated by a large oak desk with Lex (law) carved into it, which is where the President of the Assembly sits. Above the desk is a statue of Republic by Anjos Teixeira (1916) and a painting showing the 1821 Constituent Assembly by Veloso Salgado, surrounded by coats of arms by Benvindo Ceia. Statues representing democratic concepts, such as Constitution, Law, Eloquence, Justice and Diplomacy by sculptors including Costa Mota and Maximiano Alves, dating from 1921, are positioned around the chamber. The MPs’ seats are arranged in a semi-circle in front of the President’s desk and they are watched over from two public galleries.
The Hall of Honour, which was the former high chancel of the church of the monastery and is now used for official receptions, is notable for the frescos depicting nationalistic scenes of the Portuguese discoveries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, painted by Sousa Lopes, Domingos Rebelo and Joaquim Rebocho in the 1940s.
In contrast to the pink and white marbled walls of the Session Chamber, the Senate Chamber walls are covered with plaster designed to look like Siena marble and the room is dominated by a large walnut desk and on the wall behind it is a panel of carved cedarwood with figures of Royalty and Justice by Leandro Braga and a portrait of King Luís I by José Rodrigues (1866) in the middle of it. For me the pièce de résistance in this chamber is the ceiling, which appears to be bas-relief, but is in fact a very clever optical illusion painted by Pierre Bordes to look three-dimensional. Up until 1976, the year that Portugal’s political system became unicameral, this chamber was where the Peers of the Realm met. Nowadays this very formal-looking chamber is a used for committee meetings, conferences and most interestingly the biannual Young People’s Parliament.
Nearing the end of the tour, the library takes up four rooms in what were formerly the monks’ bedrooms. Although it was designed in 1936, it looks considerably older as the design by Adolfo Marques da Silva was based on libraries of the Renaissance period with shelving on two levels.
Despite this homage to the Renaissance, Neoclassicism is the dominant style throughout the palace and it continues into the formal garden at the back of the palace, the focus of which is two statues of Justice (Maximiano Alves, 1935) and Strength (sculptor unknown). The garden has a wall at the back separating the palace from the Prime Minister’s residence. In contrast to the garden, a small interior cloister with olives trees and an eighteenth-century fountain still has a monastic tranquillity to it.
With the exception of a couple of other rooms of little interest, the tour more or less ends at the Monks’ Refectory in the north-east wing of the building. It still contains the impressive eighteenth-century azulejo panels on the walls depicting events from the life of Saint Benedict alongside scenes of daily life. However, it is now a rather soulless visitors’ welcome centre and was full of white plastic chairs on the day we visited!
As I left this room I noted how the former monastery had been eclipsed by the Neoclassical architecture and had lost its original features in a way many other former monasteries in Portugal that I have visited haven’t. Ventura Terra had definitely fulfilled his brief to make it look more parliamentary.
Portugal is a republic and as such has a President as the head of state and a Prime Minister as the head of the government. The role of the President of the Republic is mainly a ceremonial role, but the President does have the power to dissolve parliament. As of February 2018 the Prime Minister is António Costa of the Socialist Party (elected in 2015) in coalition with the far-left parties (Left Bloc, Portuguese Communist Party and Ecologist Party ‘The Greens’). The government serves a term of four years. The current President of the Republic is the popular and charismatic centre-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (who stood as an independent) and who will serve a term of five years. He is not to be confused with the President of the Assembly of the Republic, which is a role equivalent to that of Speaker in the UK parliament and is elected by MPs. This role is currently held by Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues. There are 230 MPs who sit in the Session Chamber to the left or right of the President of the Assembly of the Republic’s desk in their parliamentary groups. The two main parties are the Partido Socialista (PS) (Socialist Party – a centre-left party) and Partido Social Democrata (PSD) (Social Democratic Party – a centre-right party). The other parties represented in the government are: Bloco Esquerdo (BE) (Left Bloc); Partido Comunista Português (PCP) (Portuguese Communist Party); Partido Popular (CDS-PP) (Central Democratic and Social – Popular Party); Partido Ecologista ‘Os Verdes’ (PEV) (Ecologist Party ‘The Greens); and Pessoas – Animais – Natureza (PAN) (People – Animals – Nature).
Palácio da Assembléia Nacional de São Bento, main entrance is on Rua Correia Garção (off Calçada da Estrela), Lisbon
Public transport: Metro: Rato (yellow line); Tram: 25 and 28; Bus: 706, 727, 773
Guided tours of the building are held on the last Saturday of the month. Tours are free but must be booked online in advance.
There is a virtual tour on the parliament website.