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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Brief History of Praça do Comércio in Lisbon

What is Praça do Comércio?

Praça do Comércio, or Commerce Square in English, is one of Lisbon’s most majestic squares, with a dramatic history.

Rua Augusta Arch and King Joseph I statue at Commerce Square

Praça do Comércio History

Praça do Comércio (or Commerce Square in English) may not sound particularly inspiring, but this stunning riverfront plaza has been the location of a terrible earthquake, a fire and a tsunami that killed thousands, as well as the place where a Portuguese king and his son were assassinated.

The earthquake and subsequent fire and tsunami took place in 1755. Before that, the square was the site of a royal palace, the Paço da Ribeira. It had an extensive royal library with more than 70,000 volumes, hundreds of works of art by painters such as Titian and Rubens, and an archive containing the records of Vasco da Gama’s overseas discoveries. All these were sadly destroyed during the earthquake and its aftermath. However, many locals still refer to the broad square as the Terreiro do Paço (or Palace Courtyard), which alludes to the former royal residence.

When most of Lisbon was rebuilt, the Praça do Comércio was created, and remains one of Europe’s largest squares. It’s surrounded on three sides by imposing Classical 18th-century buildings painted a distinctive lemon colour. The square faces the harbourside on the Tagus River estuary and was at one time known as the Gateway to Lisbon, because passenger ships would disembark here and merchant ships load and unload their cargo.

The centrepiece of Lisbon’s great reconstruction project was installed some 20 years after the earthquake, an enormous bronze equestrian statue of King Joseph I, which restored the area’s former royal connection. It was the work of Joaquim Machado de Castro, one of Portugal’s foremost sculptors, and features an ornate pedestal with figures representing Fame and Triumph. Sadly, the artist couldn’t witness the statue being lifted into place, since he was dismissed by a policeman on the day of the event. As a result, it’s said that the statue of King Joseph is slightly askew.

View of Commerce Square from above

In 1908, one of Lisbon history’s most notorious incidents occurred here: in February that year the Portuguese Royal Family were riding across the square in an open carriage after a visit to their winter hunting lodge. A group of assassins opened fire on the carriage, killing King Carlos I instantly. The shots also fatally wounded his eldest son and heir, Prince Luís Filipe, and these events eventually triggered the overthrow of the Portuguese monarchy and the introduction of a republic. The assassinations also paved the way for the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, which lasted until the 1970s. Today, you can see a plaque on a wall at the northwest corner that marks the spot where the king and prince were killed.

On the riverside of the square, you’ll see the Cais das Colunas (or Pier of the Columns) that was for centuries the main entrance to Lisbon. The grand buildings on the square are now mainly occupied by restaurants and it can be a magical place from which to enjoy views of the city, having a cocktail on one of the terraces while watching the sun set over the river.

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