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Versão Portuguesa

Tower of Belém

In the Age of the Discoveries, Lisbon grew in importance as a cosmopolitan city and quickly became a point of reference and encounter between cultures, peoples and knowledge. The Portuguese naval policy in the 16th century and the advances in maritime travel made the port of Lisbon a compulsory stop on the international trade routes.
Protecting Lisbon and the approach to it from the sea became a necessity. King João II (1455-1495) took the initiative of drawing up an innovative and effective plan that consisted of the formation of a tripartite defence system between the Cascais bulwark, the fort of São Sebastião da Caparica (also known as the Torre Velha or Old Tower) on the south bank of the Tagus, and a third fortress, which, due to João's death, was built by his successor Manuel I. The Tower of Belém - dedicated to the patron saint of Lisbon, St. Vincent - was thus built on the spot where the Great Carrack that had hitherto provided the crossfire with the São Sebastião fort had been anchored, replacing a wooden structure with a stone one.
Francisco de Arruda was appointed Master of the Bulwark at Belém after his return from North Africa, where he gained distinction as a builder of fortresses. He began construction work in 1514, under the orientation of the Master Builder of the Realm, Diogo de Boitaca, who at the time was in charge of the construction work on the Jerónimos Monastery. The tower was completed in 1520 and one year later its first governor, Gaspar de Paiva, was appointed. Francisco de Arruda's contribution is visible in the tower's architectural form and the delicate proportions, as well as the Islamic/Oriental influences in the decorative elements, of which the ribbed cupolas that top the bartizans are one of the most noticeable examples.
As a symbol of the king's prestige, the tower's decoration features the symbolism that is characteristic of the Manueline style: stone rope elements around the façade ending in elegant knots, armillary spheres, crosses of the Order of Christ and elements taken from nature.
Of the latter, the stand-out element is a representation of a rhinoceros - the first known stone representation in the whole of Europe - at the base of a bartizan turret on the bulwark facing west. It symbolises the pioneering contacts Portugal maintained with overseas peoples. Down through the centuries various interventions were carried out on the tower, culminating in the 19th-century restoration work on the crenellations, the bulwark terrace, the niche with the statue of the Virgin facing the river and the open-roofed patio on which it is supported, which served to provide air to and ventilate the casemates, especially when the latter filled up with gunpowder smoke. In the tower's structure we can distinguish two parts: the tower itself, which follows mediaeval tradition, slender and containing four vaulted rooms; and the bulwark, which is modern in conception and is broader, having casemates with artillery positioned all the way round. This is the part that the visitor has direct access to upon entering through the Tower's main gate.
With the passage of time, and the construction of newer, more modern and more effective fortresses, the Tower of Belém gradually forfeited its role in the defence of the Tagus Estuary. It subsequently served as a customs control point, a telegraph office and even a lighthouse.
It was also used as a political prison, with its storerooms converted into dungeons, during the Iberian Union (1580-1640) and in periods of political instability.
The Tower of Belém symbolises Portugal open to the Atlantic, the peripheral Portugal. Although firmly anchored in the Tagus and armed with fixed artillery for centuries, it evokes voyage, longing, exodus and the nomadism of the Portuguese throughout the world, as well as the pioneering nature of the Portuguese contacts with other cultures in the diverse insular and continental spaces.
The symbolic nudity of its stones evokes the local, regional and national dimension, but also extends to the universal dimension in which man, in his unifying and diverse qualities, finds his place. The Tower of Belém affirms the right to be different of a people and extended community with a common language.

 

 

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