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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Aqueduto das Águas Livres in Lisbon

What is Aqueduto das Águas Livres?

Aqueduto das Águas Livres, or Águas Livres Aqueduct in English, is an 18th-century stone aqueduct that passes through five separate Portuguese municipalities.

Águas Livres Aqueduct

Aqueduto das Águas Livres History

The Aqueduto das Águas Livres (or Aqueduct of Free Waters) was built in the mid-18th century to supply much-needed fresh drinking water to the entire city of Lisbon. At the time, it was capital to a vast empire, with a rapidly expanding population. However, its pressing need for a fresh-water system dated back two centuries, to when the city first expanded beyond its medieval parameters.

In 1571, Francisco de Holanda, the influential Renaissance court painter and royal sculptor, had presented King Sebastian with a proposal to extend the existing Roman aqueduct system. He asked: ‘Now, if Lisbon has the presumption of being the greatest and noblest city in the world, how come she does not have drinking water for the people of the world?’ De Holanda, who had studied in Italy as a young man and was perhaps inspired by the rediscovery and reassessment of classical antiquities there, proposed that the city should reuse the derelict 3rd-century Roman dam he had discovered to the northwest. Although the issue was of pressing importance, de Holanda’s proposed project was shelved for another century and a half.

In the mid-18th century, the civic official responsible for the western half of the city, Cláudio Gorgel do Amaral, insisted that King John V commission an aqueduct to bring drinking water down from the Águas Livres in Belas, some 15 kilometres northwest of the capital. Although there was plenty of water in the Tagus River, it was salty and not fit to drink. Public fountains would run dry in the summer and fights would break out; the city was bursting at the seams with a population of nearly 250,000. This time, the plan to install a new water system was realised. John’s winding aqueduct took about 13 years to construct and stretched 18 kilometres, though its network of connecting canals extended for nearly 60 kilometres. The vast construction was funded by the payment of special taxes, named ‘Water Royal’, levied on essential foodstuffs such as meat, olive oil and wine. The population of Lisbon, who supported the building costs of this feat of engineering by a precursor of ‘crowdfunding’, rejoiced in at last being able to access fresh water.

In architectural terms, the project was carried out in a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical styles, featuring pointed arches, lantern-shaped skylights and decorative friezes. In fact, the structure features the largest pointed stone arch in the world, standing to an impressive 65 metres high and a width of 29 metres. At the very end of the aqueduct, you’ll find the Mãe d'Água (or Mother of Water), a huge 18th-century reservoir resembling a solemn, aquatic church.

One of the most remarkable stories involving the aqueduct is that of Diogo Alves. He was a 19th-century serial killer who waited for women on the pathway that runs along the Alcântara Valley stretch, a route then used by washerwomen dealing with the laundry of Lisbon’s wealthy families. After robbing them, Alves hurled the women to their death, hiding his crimes with the suggestion of suicides.

The aqueduct remained in operation until the late 1960s. Since large parts of it ran through the centre of the bustling capital, a decision was made to prioritise the growth of Lisbon, which necessitated removing some parts of the aqueduct. However, the loss of these did not detract from the historical and artistic importance of the whole, and today this remarkable structure remains an iconic landmark of the Portuguese capital.

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