History, Lisbon, The Marquês de Pombal – the liberal despot who rebuilt Lisbon

The Marquês de Pombal – the liberal despot who rebuilt Lisbon

picture 00001 (0403)If you stand on the viewing platform at the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa in Lisbon there is a wonderful view of the Baixa district below with its grid-like streets and spacious squares, and it is hard to image that it wasn’t always like this. But before 1755 the district was made up of narrow winding streets situated behind the large Ribeira Palace (the former royal palace in what is now the Praça do Comércio, which can be seen in the famous panorama of Lisbon c.1700 in the Azulejo Museum).

picture 00001 (559)-Rua de Santa Justa, Castle and Graca Church
Rua de Santa Justa, Graça church and St George’s Castle from Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon
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Ribeira Palace and the Baixa district c.1700 (from a panel in the Azulejo Museum, Lisbon)

In 1755 an earthquake that is said to have reached up to 9 on the Richter scale hit Lisbon on the morning of 1st November, followed by a tidal wave. Then fires brokes out all over the city, believed to have been started by candles in the churches lit for All Saints’ Day. Much of the city was completely destroyed, particularly the Baixa district and the Ribeira Palace. Although it is unknown how many people died, it is estimated to be between 30,000 and 90,000; many as a result of the famine that ensued.

At the time, the country was ruled by King José I, who was not interested in governing and was happy to let his Prime Minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (1699-1782), better known as the Marquês de Pombal (which he became in 1770), run the country. The Marquês de Pombal is a controversial figure in Portuguese history, as he was a liberal who brought about many reforms, but dealt harshly with anyone who opposed him. He had a no-nonsense response to the situation after the earthquake, summed up in a quotation attributed to him, saying that they needed to ‘bury the dead and take care of the living’. He immediately ordered the precarious buildings in the Baixa to be demolished and, with architects Eugénio dos Santos and Manuel da Maia, set about designing and rebuilding the area in a grid pattern, with low-rise functional buildings, wide streets and large squares, all designed to withstand future earthquakes. He also introduced a sewerage system and wells for clean water to prevent disease spreading. He is even responsible for introducing the calçada (cobbled pavement) to Lisbon. He wanted the Baixa to be the commercial area of the city, with the shops grouped together according to their trade. Today streets in the Baixa still retain the names of these trades, such as Rua do Ouro (Gold Street), Rua da Prata (Silver Street) and Rua dos Sapateiros (Shoemakers Street). The squares of Praça Dom Pedro IV (also known as Rossio), Praça da Figueira and Praça do Comércio were built during this period. The redesign also included retaining the ruins of the Carmo Church as a memorial to the earthquake. The naked gothic arches against the skyline are still one of the most dramatic and sobering images in Lisbon.picture 00001 (0552)

His style of town planning and architecture brought a new adjective, ‘Pombaline’, into the language and with this style he is said to have modernised Lisbon.

As a liberal he wanted to give more power to the middle classes and increase the number of bankers and merchants, in part to finance the rebuilding of the Baixa, but mainly to diminish the power of the aristocracy and the church, in particular the Jesuits. His liberal reforms included abolishing slavery, reforming education, the law, agriculture, industry and trade and giving equal rights to New Christians (former Jews who had converted to Christianity). However, his liberalism didn’t extend as far as people who opposed him; in that respect he ruled like a dictator. He was ruthless in eliminating his enemies, to the extent of implicating some of his opponents in an attempt on the King’s life and having them killed for treason. Political and religious dissenters were imprisoned, he introduced censorship and he was merciless in his suppression of the Jesuits, expelling them from Portugal in 1759 and even having 10 Jesuit priests burnt in one of the final auto-da-fés in Portugal. His period of governance came to an abrupt end in 1777 when King José I died and his daughter, Maria, became queen. He was sacked (not surprisingly, as he had schemed to remove Maria from the line of succession) and then charged with serious offences committed during his 27 years in government. He managed to avoid going to prison due to his advanced years. Despite Queen Maria I’s dislike of him, his legacy of reform mainly survived, except for his religious reforms, which she repealed.

The statue on the Praça do Marquês de Pombal roundabout, built between 1917 and 1934 by the architects Arnaldo Redondo, Adães Bermudes and António do Couto, along with sculptors Francisco dos Santos and (after his death) José Simões de Almeida and Leopoldo Neves de Almeida, is a fitting tribute to the man and his reforms (although it overlooks his darker deeds!). Positioned at the end of the Avenida da Liberdade near the Parque Eduardo VII, the bronze statue of the Marquês de Pombal standing alongside a lion looks down the avenue towards the Baixa area that he created.

At the top of the 40-metre pedestal on which he stands are medallions of men who worked with him: Machado de Castro, Luís da Cunha, Eugénio dos Santos and Manuel da Maia and below them are a list of his reforms.picture 00001 (0393) Lower down the monument are sculptures depicting his main areas of reform, dominated by two large sculptures: on one side an ox pulling a plough alongside agricultural workers, one of whom is carrying a basket of grapes, to represent the agricultural industry; and on the other a horse and a group of manual workers pulling a boat loaded with port barrels and draped with a fishing net to represent the port and fishing industries. The scale and attention to detail is breathtaking.picture 00001 (0043) 0001picture 00001 (0394) 0001 At the back of the monument in front of the mausoleum is a bronze figure of the Roman goddess Minerva symbolizing education. At the front is the prow of a ship with the Lisbon coat of arms and on either side of it are two powerful images of a collapsing building and a tidal wave depicting the earthquake.

Above the prow of the ship is a semi-nude female figure representing the new Pombaline Lisbon. picture 00001 (0396)The fact that the statue was inaugurated in the early years of Salazar’s Estado Novo (New State) can’t be ignored and it played to the nationalist values of the dictatorship. Comparisons can be drawn between the two men, particularly in their fierce intolerance of anyone who opposed them. However, while Salazar’s policies had left Portugal as a backward country at the time of the 1974 revolution, the Marquês de Pombal will always be remembered as the man who rebuilt Lisbon and through his liberal reforms brought Portugal into the modern era.