Lisbon, Queluz Palace: the summer playground of the Portuguese Royal Family

Queluz Palace: the summer playground of the Portuguese Royal Family

I have to confess to a great fondness for Queluz Palace above all the other Portuguese royal palaces, not only because of its beautiful Rococo design, but also because both inside the Palace and in the formal gardens there is a strong sense of the generations of the Royal Family who used it as their summer residence. Despite being occupied and pillaged during the French invasion in the early-19th century and being badly damaged by a fire in 1934, the rooms are tastefully furnished with rugs, furniture, pictures and ornaments which give a sense of the fashions at the height of the Palace’s glory days from the mid-eighteenth century to the early-nineteenth century.

Stepping out of Queluz-Belas train station, however, I first wondered if we had got off at the wrong stop, as the ugly modern blocks of flats were incongruous with the location of a royal palace. We looked for a signpost directing us to Queluz Palace, but there was nothing, which again made me question whether this was the right place, but after a quick check on the map we turned left into Rua Dona Maria I which led us to a section of the Águas Livres Aqueduct (which from 1769 branched off to supply water to the Palace), where we turned right and then left into a long, unassuming street called Rua Dr. Manuel de Arriaga.

Aqueducto das Águas Livres, Queluz

When we finally reached the end we could see the distinctive bell tower and the pastel blue exterior of the Pousada ahead. The contrast between the Largo do Palácio de Queluz and the nearby suburb of Queluz-Belas is surprising in the extreme and may explain why many people arrive at the Palace by tour bus. On one side of the square is the Pousada Palácio de Queluz – Hotel Dona Maria I, which formerly housed the Royal Guards when the Royal Family was resident at the Palace. On the other side of the square is the long low-rise Palace, which was formerly pink but now, as with the Pousada, is a pleasing pastel blue, in front of which is a large 1797 monument to Queen Maria I by João José de Aguiar, in which Maria is depicted as Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, flanked by four statues representing the four continents. The Palace was bequeathed to the country by King Manuel II in 1908, two years before the country was declared a Repulic.

The Palace was originally built as a summer residence for the Royal Family in the mid-eighteenth century. Prince Pedro (a younger son of King João V) and, later, Pedro’s son, King João VI, bought several small estates in the area 13 km north-west of the centre of Lisbon to form the Quinta Real de Queluz (Royal Estate of Queluz). In 1747 Pedro commissioned the architect Mateus Vicente de Oliveira to create a Rococo palace using the Palace of Versailles as his inspiration and it was completed in 1752. In 1760 Prince Pedro married his niece, Maria (who was to become Queen Maria I in 1777), the eldest daughter of King José I, and what was just a summer residence needed to become more palatial.

Two men are associated with the creation of the Palace that we see today. The aforementioned de Oliveira and the French architect Jean-Baptiste Robillion. In the first phase of construction, de Oliveira (who also designed the Estrela Basilica and the Church of Saint António in Lisbon) developed the section that includes the Music Room and the Chapel, as well as the exterior Ceremonial Facade that overlooks the gardens. The Music Room, which is adjacent to the Throne Room, was completed in 1759 and used for music recitals performed by Maria I’s chamber orchestra and a portrait of Queen Maria I above the piano (attributed to the Italian court painter Guiseppe Troni in the late-18th century) dominates the room. In any room in the Palace it is worth looking up at the ceiling decor and the Music Room is no exception, as it has a Rococo ceiling designed by Silvestre de Faria Lobo in which, if you look carefully, you will see small musical motifs reflecting the room’s purpose.

The octagonal domed Chapel, in the same section of the Palace and also designed by de Oliveira, dates from the early 1750s and is a wonderful Rococo mixture of gilt carved wood (created by Silvestre de Faria Lobo) with marble and lapis lazuli-effect on the walls and ceiling. Hopefully, at some point in the future, the late-18th century organ, attributed to António Xavier Machado e Cerveira and currently under restoration, should be returned to the upper choir.

De Oliveira was called back to Lisbon to help rebuild the city after the devastating earthquake of 1755 and at the time of Pedro and Maria’s marriage in 1760 the Palace was extended and Robillion was commissioned to design it and make it fittingly regal. Many of Robillion’s designs are still visible today including the stunning Throne Room (or Great Room), which was created in 1768 for official receptions and was clearly inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles with gilded mirrors and large windows lining the long room. Golden figures by Silvestre Faria Lobo, positioned below the ceiling at each corner, as if supporting the room, caught my eye in this Rococo-style room.

The Corridor of Sleeves, which leads from the main part of the Palace to the west wing, is Neo-classical in style and decorated with blue and white azulejo panels by Manuel da Costa Rosado in 1764 depicting hunting scenes and scenes from daily life and polychrome azulejo panels by Jorge da Costa added in 1784 depicting scenes from classical mythology, the four seasons and the four continents. On display in the corridor is an original carriage that was used to transport the Royal Family around the grounds. The corridor’s intriguing name is said to come from the glass tubes (‘sleeves’) that protected the candles from draughts.

Robillion excelled himself in his design of the Ambassador’s Room (or Vases Room) which was used for diplomatic audiences and concerts is dominated by two thrones at one end of the room, which were naturally for the King and Queen. Each throne has a large porcelain vase next to it and there are mirrored columns which support a canopy over the thrones. In this room the ceiling decoration is as important as that of the wall with an exceptional Trompe l’oeil painting on the ceiling showing the Royal Family during the reign of King José I (1750-1777) attending a music recital.

Robillion’s other main input inside the Palace is actually named after him. The Robillion Pavilion was the private quarters of the Royal Family located in the west wing of the Palace next to the Ambassador’s Room. The rooms in the pavilion include the Neo-Classical Dispatch Room, which was used for ministerial meetings and dispatches during the time of Prince João (later King João VI, who was Prince Regent from 1792, after his mother Queen Maria I became too mentally ill to rule (thought to be brought on by the death of her eldest son, José, of smallpox in 1788) until her death in 1816). Large Renaissance-style classical scenes by Giovanni Berardi line the walls of the room and a large painting depicting the ‘Passage of Time’ fills the ceiling.

Dispatch Room, Palácio de Queluz

In contrast the Picnic Room, dating from 1767 and used as a dining room, is a Rococo extravagance with gilt flourishes on the walls, surrounding the paintings depicting the four seasons and rich people having picnics in the countryside, and a gilt honeycomb-effect ceiling with gold roses in the centre of each segment. In the centre of the table is an exquisite British-made silver epergne (a table centrepiece with arms which hold removable baskets for sweets, fruit or flowers) dating from 1780.

The Don Quixote Room in the Robillion Pavilion was the birthplace of the Royal babies during the reign of King João VI and his wife Queen Carlota Joaquina, including Prince Pedro, who later became Emperor Pedro I of Brazil in 1822 and briefly King Pedro IV of Portugal in 1826. During his short life he led Brazil to independence and on returning to Portugal to succeed the Portuguese throne the liberal Pedro became embroiled in a civil war with his absolutist brother, Miguel. Although Pedro ultimately won the war, the effort took a toll on his health and he died in the Don Quixote Room in 1834 at the age of 35. The square room has the illusion of being circular due to the placement of columns, which support the domed ceiling, and due to the circular parquet floor design. The room is decorated in Rococo style with gold ornamentation, mirrors and paintings depicting scenes from the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Cervantes painted by Manuel de Costa in 1784.

Queen Carlota Joaquina’s bedroom, which was the bedroom of various royals, as well as Queen Carlota Joaquina herself, is notable for its silver papier mâché decorations, in a Palace where everything else seems to be gold! In the adjacent Queen’s Dressing Room the ceiling has a very pretty basketwork design with delicate papier mâché flowers and this basketwork pattern is reflected in the parquet floor. The walls are decorated with scenes of children playing at dressing-up surrounded by gold ornamentation and mirrors.

Robillion died in 1782 and after his death Manuel Caetano de Sousa took over and designed the Dona Maria Pavilion, which is at the opposite end of the Palace to the Robillion Pavilion. Queen Maria I lived here after becoming mentally ill, until the Royal Family relocated to Brazil in 1807.

Dona Maria Pavillion, Palácio de Queluz

Also around this latter period a number of private apartments built for Princess Maria Francisca Benedita, the younger sister of Queen Maria I, was also added with a decor based on the fashions of the late-18th century, including the French Empire Room and the Dona Maria Room with Pompeian motifs of palms, garlands and sphinxes.

Robillion created a grand staircase to lead from the Robillion Pavilion to the gardens below. The Robillion (or Lion) Staircase was built between 1758 and 1760 and it is decorated with statues of lions, which may be a reference to the fact that during the reign of Maria I exotic animals such as lions, tigers and jaguars were kept in cages in the gardens near the staircase.

Robillion Staircase, Palácio de Queluz

The Robillion Staircase leads to a very pretty tiled canal, which is a 115-metre canal built in 1755. It is now dry, but at the time was filled with water from the nearby River Jamor and decorated with polychromatic azulejo panels depicting landscapes and hunting scenes. In its heyday, the Royal Family sailed along the canal on gondolas while listening to music from the lake house in the centre, where music recitals were held in the summer.

The 15-hectare grounds are much smaller now than in the time of Pedro and Maria and mainly consist of landscaped gardens, along with the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, where the Lusitano horses are trained in dressage and whose stables are accessible to visitors to the Palace. The gardens in the second half of the 18th century must have been quite a sight, as, as well as the wild animal cages, there were cages with exotic birds, horse-drawn carriages in which the Royal Family toured the grounds and festivities were marked by fireworks, aerostatic balloons, musical performances and even horse races. Nowadays the gardens are peaceful areas of flower beds, fountains and (slightly weather-beaten) statues. To the right of the Robillion Staircase, the New Garden was created in 1775 by the Royal gardener, Luís Simões Ressurgido and it is characterized by two water features, the octagonal Medallions Lake designed by Robillion and the Fountain of Neptune, which was sculpted by Ercole Ferrata (a disciple of the great Italian architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini) in the 17th century, but added to the Palace gardens in 1945. In this area of the garden are several lead sculptures by the British sculptor John Cheere, including the dramatic and disturbing Cain and Abel and The Abduction of Proserpina by Pluto dating from the 1750s.

To the left of the Robillion Staircase, past the Robillion Pavilion and Shells Cascade, are the upper gardens of the Hanging Garden and the Malta Garden in front of the appropriately named Ceremonial Facade. These formal parterres designed by Robillion contain flower beds, box-tree hedges, fountains (including the Neptune’s Lake, Nereid’s Lake, Monkey Lake and Shells Lake) and statues, a large number of which were sculpted in lead by the aforementioned John Cheere (including Mars and Minerva at the entrance to the Ceremonial Facade), alongside marble status imported from Italy.

Beyond the upper gardens, at the far end of the Palace grounds is the Grand Cascade, another Robillion addition dating from 1778. It is a man-made waterfall of marble and stone which used water from the aqueduct which was stored in the upper section.

Waterfall, Palácio de Queluz

In contrast to British royal palaces that are expensive, overcrowded with tourists and where visitor are herded around like sheep and not allowed to take photographs, Queluz Palace was pleasantly quiet with freedom to wander and take photos. I hope it can stay like that!

Practicalities

Queluz Palace is located halfway between the centre of Lisbon and Sintra and there are regular trains from Rossio, Entrecampos and Oriente stations in Lisbon and Sintra to Queluz-Belas and Monte Abraão (Queluz-Belas is slightly closer to Lisbon and Monte Abraão is slightly closer to Sintra, but there is not a lot in it). The Palace is approximately 1km from either station.

The Palace is open from 9am to 6pm and a ticket costs €10.