Chafariz D'El Rei: the melting pot of 16th-century Lisbon, Lisbon

Chafariz D’El Rei: the melting pot of 16th-century Lisbon

The Chafariz D’El Rei is a fountain in the Alfama quarter of the Santa Maria Maior district of Lisbon (on Rua de Cais de Santarém, halfway between the Casa dos Bicos and the Fado Museum) that is intrinsically linked with the social history of the city. It is a large limestone structure which was originally built in the 13th century to supply spring water from the Alfama to the boats in the nearby harbour. It was renovated under the orders of King Dinis in 1308, when its name was changed from the São João da Praça dos Canos Fountain to Chafariz d’El-Rei (The King’s Fountain). A plaque next to the fountain summarizes the history of the fountain:
CHAFARIZ D’EL REY EDIFICADO NO SECULO XIII
FOI REFORMADO PELO REI D. DINIS
RECONSTRUIDO NO ANO DE 1747
REPARADO DEPOIS DE 1755
E MELHORADO NOS MEADOS DO SECULO XIX
(‘D’EL REY FOUNTAIN BUILT IN THE 13TH CENTURY
IT WAS RENOVATED BY KING DINIS
RECONSTRUCTED IN THE YEAR 1747
REPAIRED AFTER 1755
AND ENHANCED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 19TH CENTURY’)

By the 16th century it was the main source of drinking water in the city, but in the 1740s part of it collapsed necessitating it being rebuilt in 1747 and again in 1755 after the famous earthquake that destroyed Lisbon. The structure of the current fountain was completed in the 19th century, including the addition of a second level and the enhancement of the decor on the façade of the fountain with decorative stone vases and three stonework friezes depiciting the Portuguese coat-of-arms in the centre and, to the left and right of this, the Lisbon coat-of-arms (two ravens on a ship).

Although nowadays there are only holes where the three remaining water spouts along the bottom of the fountain were, in the sixteenth-century there were six spouts, the use of which was regulated by a bylaw of 1551 that separated various ethnic and social groups, arguably to stop fights breaking out. The first spout was for male African slaves and non-white freemen, the second was for North African galley slaves from the ships, the third and fourth were for white working-class men and servants, the fifth was for female African slaves and non-white freewomen and the sixth was for white working-class women and girls and female servants (the wealthy people did not collect their own water). Despite this segregation, I like to think the area around the fountain must have been a lively melting pot of the different groups that made up Lisbon society, an estimated 10 percent of which by the mid-16th century was black. A 16th-century painting by an anonymous Flemish artist c.1570-80, entitled Chafariz d’El Rey (which is part of the Berardo Collection), captures this melting pot in front of the fountain, as it appeared then, in an everyday scene which includes people from different races and classes, including a black nobleman on a horse and what appears to be a black man dancing with a white woman.

In the 18th century three more spouts were added to deal with demand for water. The fountain is attached to the former Palácio das Ratas (now the Neo-Moorish-style hotel Palacete Chafariz D’El Rei), which can be clearly seen rising above the fountain. The hotel is located on Travessa do Chafariz d’El Rei, the street behind the fountain, from where the water tank was accessed, although the fountain is now dry. Despite it no longer being used to supply water to the city, it is considered an important historical building and in 2012 the fountain was given the status of Monument of Public Interest.

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