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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Lisbon

What is Padrão dos Descobrimentos?

Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a monument in Lisbon depicting famous figures from 15th- and 16th-century Portugal, first built for the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos Figures

Padrão dos Descobrimentos History

In 1940, Lisbon played host to an enormous event called the Portuguese World Exhibition, held to celebrate 800 years since the foundation of the country and 300 years since it gained independence from Spain. The exhibition, which was attended by over three million people, aimed to show the world the history of the Portuguese Empire and its famous discoveries. For the occasion, architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo conceived a towering monument shaped like the prow of a ship, entitled the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (or Monument to the Discoveries), that was erected in honour of influential Portuguese royalty, navigators, chroniclers and mathematicians. When the monument was commissioned, Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship that lasted almost 50 years, and this ambitious celebration of national history and identity was a hallmark of that era.

The 33 magnificent sculptures on show, designed by the artist Leopoldo de Almeida, represent important figures from the 15th and 16th centuries, an era when the country’s vast empire extended across five continents. Standing confidently at the head of the prow you’ll see Prince Henry the Navigator, renowned for his patronage of various voyages of discovery. (The epithet ‘the Navigator’, however, is something of a misnomer, as the prince never actually embarked on any exploratory journey himself.) You’ll also find celebrated Portuguese navigators like Vasco da Gama, discoverer of the sea route to India, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who travelled to Brazil, and Ferdinand Magellan, who masterminded the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos

Alongside the great explorers of the age, there are images of renowned intellectuals of that time. Examples are Luís de Camões, considered Portugal’s and the Portuguese language’s greatest poet, and Pedro Nunes, an important mathematician who created the Nonius, an object that facilitated finer calculations in Portuguese navigation in the 16th century. The only woman represented on the monument is Philippa of Lancaster, wife of King John I. She was the mother of a generation of brilliant princes who won cultural and military renown during the 15th century.

What you see today is in fact a copy of the original monument, sadly made from perishable materials that deteriorated in the years following its construction. Only in 1960, to mark the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator’s death, was the structure rebuilt, using concrete and rose-tinted stone from the city of Leiria, some 120 kilometres north of Lisbon. In 1985, restoration works were carried out, resulting in the addition of a viewing platform, exhibition rooms and an auditorium.

As you wander round to the northern side of the monument, you’ll see two inscriptions flanking the entrance staircase. The one to the left, above an anchor, commemorates the figures depicted: ‘To Prince Henry and the Portuguese that Discovered the Roads of the Sea’. The text to the right, above a laurel wreath, records the date of the new monument: ‘On the fifth centenary of Prince Henry 1460 to 1960’. Once inside, you can climb to a 50-metre-high viewing platform and enjoy an impressive vista of both the city and the Tagus River. While you’re there, you’ll no doubt admire the distinctive star-shaped Rosa dos Ventos (or Compass Rose), which adorns the square at the foot of the monument. The nautical design, created in 1960, was the work of architect Luís Cristino da Silva, and its central map represents the various journeys taken by Portuguese navigators during this age of discovery.

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