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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Arco da Rua Augusta in Lisbon

What is Arco da Rua Augusta?

Arco da Rua Augusta, or the Rua Augusta Arch in English, is an 18th-century triumphal arch in Lisbon that’s decorated with elaborate historical figures.

Rua Augusta arch

Arco da Rua Augusta History

In 1755, a series of devastating earthquakes caused widespread damage to the port city of Lisbon, destroying countless public and private structures and killing over 40,000 people. Within a matter of weeks the Marquis of Pombal, chief minister to the king, prepared an efficient and pragmatic plan for reconstructing the city. Pombal’s proposals included a grand triumphal arch, the construction of which was begun in the latter part of the 1750s.

Until 1843, the Augusta Street Arch was only half its current height; its composite colonnades waited for years to be crowned. One newspaper joked that ‘each generation must bring a stone, add a festoon, embroider an ornament, add a statue...’. In 1844, following an architectural competition (a common practice in 19th-century Europe), the designs of Veríssimo José da Costa received unanimous approval. However, the project was only implemented in 1873 and the triumphal arch was, at last, completed two years later.

At the top of the arch are sculptures by French artist Célestin Anatole Calmels, three personifications of civic virtues. Glory stands upright, superb, graceful and solemn. To her right is Valour (or Strength), who embodies the figure of a woman wearing a helmet and bearing a Roman dagger, resting her right hand on a lion's head. To her left is Genius, leaning on a lyre, a symbol of the arts. The intricacy of detail and distribution of figures skilfully balances the work’s general monumentality.

Rua Augusta arch statues close up

Below the divinities are sculptures by the artist Vítor Bastos, which represent historical figures of Portugal: the 14th-century general Nuno Álvares Pereira, the legendary ancient leader Viriato, the explorer Vasco da Gama, and the Marquis of Pombal – the restorer of Lisbon and the instigator of the arch is himself commemorated here. Look closely at these statues and you’ll notice that they are flanked by personifications of the Tagus River (on the left) and the Douro (on the right), both magisterial works by Bastos. The presence of the two rivers, brought together in human form, reinforces the sculpture’s attempt to define the region of the Lusitanians, the pre-Roman Iberian people who inhabited the interior western region of the Iberian Peninsula, north of the Tagus and south of the Douro.

At the top of the arch an inscription proclaims ‘To the Virtues of the Greatest, so that it may serve everyone as a lesson’. It also reminds us that the monument was ‘dedicated at public expense’. The exhortation underlines a possibility of freedom from the interference of patrons. The clock on the north face, opposite the square, corresponds by its position with the carved royal coat of arms of Portugal, facing south. Perhaps if they had placed the clock earlier, the monument might not have taken over a hundred years to complete…

Since 2013, anyone can reach the viewpoint of the Augusta Street Arch by taking an elevator and two flights of stairs to the top. Up there, you can admire the city and its buildings in their pastel colours from above, and the river shining in all its splendour.

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