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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Palácio de São Bento in Lisbon

What is Palácio de São Bento?

Palácio de São Bento (English: São Bento Palace) is a former monastery in Lisbon that’s now the palatial home of the Portuguese government.

Palácio de São Bento

Palácio de São Bento History

It’s strange to think that this commanding, white Neoclassical palace – now the seat of national government – was once the site of a 15th-century monastery occupied by Benedictine monks. (Bento is Portuguese for ‘Benedict’.) It was here that eminent Scottish humanist and historian George Buchanan was imprisoned in the 1550s. While teaching in a Portuguese experimental school, he was accused by the Inquisition of heresy and forced to demonstrate penitence by listening to the monks’ tedious, moralising lectures (in Latin). After seven months, the Scottish scholar was released, admitting that he found the monks ‘not unkind but ignorant’.

The monastery remained open for more than 300 years. However, between 1828 and 1834, Portugal endured a bloody civil war, which pitted Peter IV, former Emperor of Brazil (which had just ceased being a colony) and supporter of constitutional monarchy and liberalism, against his brother Michael I, King of Portugal and supporter of absolutism. The confrontation, now known as the Liberal Wars, marked a brutal mid-point between the nation’s transition from royal absolutism to constitutional democracy. The liberal Peter IV was victorious following the six-year struggle and put his daughter in charge of the kingdom. Queen Mary II the Educator (so named for her progressive policies), moved the Palácio das Cortes, the nation’s parliament, to the former São Bento Monastery.

Liberalism rewarded its followers by creating white-collar jobs and selling off some of the royal estates. However, the most extraordinary outcome of the liberal victory was the dissolution of the monasteries – the expulsion of monastic orders and the nationalisation of their property. In England, Henry VIII’s sale of monastic properties was well received by the land-hungry nobility, but in Portugal there weren’t quite so many eager buyers. As a result, many of these former monasteries became military barracks and government buildings. Despite the founding of the First Portuguese Republic in 1910, which put an end to more than 700 years of monarchy, the national parliament remained here in this magnificent palace.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the palace underwent several restoration projects, both exterior and interior, which transformed it into the Neoclassical structure you see today. The most significant remodelling, which lasted for around 50 years, was predominantly carried out by the architect Miguel Ventura Terra, designer of the Lisbon Synagogue. His harmonious façade features tall columns topped by a 30-metre-long triangular pediment that depicts an allegorical figure of the Portuguese nation enthroned at the centre, accompanied by a Latin phrase that reads: ‘Everything for the Nation’. She’s flanked by 18 personifications of various domains including industry and commerce, among others. At ground level, you’ll see four seated figures representing Prudence, Justice, Strength and Temperance, all by different sculptors. The palace’s interior is no less impressive, boasting exuberant decoration and historic portraiture.

Unusually, the grounds contain not one but two branches of national government: the legislative and the executive. Built in the 1870s by Joaquim Machado Cayres and located just behind the palace in the greenery of the former monastery garden is the São Bento Mansion, official residence of the Prime Minister of Portugal. Once home to a community of Benedictine monks, this magnificent complex is now the political heart of modern Lisbon.

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