It is perhaps a little hard to believe that the Torre de Belém was actually built as a fortress to protect the mouth of the Tagus river, the gateway to Lisbon. The tower is so beautifully decorated with Manueline and Renaissance elements, that it could easily have been part of a palace. It deservedly became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, together with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery.
Plans to construct a tower as part of Lisbon’s coastal defences were originally developed by King João II (1481-1495). However, King João died before these plans could be executed and the project to build the Torre de Belém did not start until 1515, during the reign of King Manuel I (1495-1521). The tower was completed in either 1519 or 1521 (sources differ). It was named the Castelo de São Vicente de Belém, after Saint Vincent the Deacon (martyred in 304), who is the patron saint of Lisbon. The tower used to be much further from the shore, although it was never in the middle of the river, as some sources claim. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, land was reclaimed from the river on the northern bank of the Tagus, so the shore steadily crept southwards, until it almost reached the tower. Visitors can now reach the tower by crossing a wooden bridge.
The defensive capacities of the Torre de Belém were hardly impressive. The tower had some 17 cannons in the casemate of the bastion, but these failed to repel the Spanish invasion of 1580. After this defeat, Spain and Portugal would be united under the same Crown for the next sixty years, the so-called Iberian Union. The fortress having effectively lost its function, its casemate was used as a dungeon until well into the nineteenth century.
As is mentioned above, the tower’s decorations are lovely. The Renaissance style loggia on the second floor of the tower is impressive and inspired by Italian architecture. Above the loggia is the emblem of King Manuel I in the middle, with armillary spheres to the left and right of the two windows. These are typical parts of Manueline architecture, as are the crosses from the Order of Christ (see Portugal: Tomar) on the battlements of the third floor and the ropes that can be found on the facade of all the floors. A statue of the Virgin of Belém holding a child in her right hand and a bundle of grapes in her left can be found on the deck of the bastion. She is the protector of sailors and is also known as the Virgem da Boa Viagem.
Among the most interesting decorations of the Torre de Belém are the sculptures of animals below some of the turrets. One of these sculptures is a rhinoceros. It is quite likely that this is the rhinoceros from India that King Manuel I sent to Pope Leo X in 1515. After all, construction of the tower started in that year. Manuel’s rhinoceros was the first example of the species seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. Regretfully, the rhinoceros died when the boat carrying him to Italy was shipwrecked. The animal was immortalised by Albrecht Dürer, and if we assume that the animal on the Torre de Belém also represents Manuel’s rhinoceros, its memory is kept alive there as well.
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