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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Palácio de Belém in Lisbon

What is Palácio de Belém?

Palácio de Belém is a historic structure in Lisbon that dates back to the 16th century and is now the official residence and office of the President of Portugal.

Palácio de Belém History

The combination of its striking pink façade, the pomp and circumstance of its Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and its more than 500 years of history, are likely to make you stop and contemplate this elegant building. The Belém Palace (taking its name from that of the neighbourhood, which means ‘Bethlehem’ in Portuguese) is the official residence and office of the President of the Portuguese Republic, and has been since the republic’s founding in 1910.

In the mid-16th century, the diplomat and poet Manuel de Portugal, a leading figure of the Portuguese Renaissance, leased some land from local monks on which to construct a palatial country home and gardens southwest of the city of Lisbon, cooled by the fresh river breezes of the Tagus. Handed down through successive generations, it was eventually acquired in the early 18th century by King John V the Magnanimous, an epithet he received thanks to his grand infrastructure projects. John purchased some of the neighbouring farms and adapted the interior to afford his mistresses discreet entry and exit. Around this time, the palace was known as the ‘Quinta dos Bichos’ (or ‘House of Beasts’) since there were caged Moroccan lions in one of the courtyards. The summer estate remained in royal ownership for the next two centuries, until the famous regicide of 1908.

That year marked the beginning of the end for Portugal’s monarchy, which had ruled for nearly eight centuries. The public were fed up with political corruption and economic troubles, and the excesses and extravagance of the royal family. A national recession had led to a revolt in 1906, and as a result the king had empowered a leading conservative politician to establish an autocratic government. Instead of being the solution, as King Carlos I had intended, this move was interpreted by the citizens as symptomatic of wider problems. As the king, queen and their two sons rode through the city streets in an open carriage one February day, returning from a month-long holiday, a group of assassins shot from close range and killed Carlos and his eldest son, Luís Filipe. Carlos’s second son, who escaped the attack with just a wounded arm, acceded to the throne for a short-lived reign. During Manuel II’s two years in power, he offered the Belém Palace to the state – no doubt conscious of the growing unease surrounding his rule – and it was used to house visiting dignitaries.

From 1910 onwards, the palace became a focal point of the new Portuguese Republic, selected as the official residence of its president. The monthly rent for all presidents who, until 1926, chose to live in the palace, was 100 escudos (around 60 euros nowadays). This fee, legacy of the egalitarian principles of the regime, was eventually revoked in 1928.

During the dark times of the authoritarian Estado Novo (or New State), marked by António de Oliveira Salazar's dictatorial rule, the Belém Palace only hosted President Francisco Craveiro Lopes, who lived here in the 1950s. Given the reduction of the role of President of the Republic by the Constitution of 1933, until the Carnation Revolution which saw the overthrow of the Estado Novo, the Belém Palace was largely redundant. Since then, the salmon-coloured structure has played a greater role in Portuguese political life, even though heads of state have generally not taken up residence here since the 1980s.

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