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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of the Casa dos Bicos in Lisbon

What is Casa dos Bicos?

Casa dos Bicos is an unusual Renaissance mansion, known as the ‘House of Spikes’, that’s now part of the Museum of Lisbon and the José Saramago Foundation.


Casa dos Bicos

Casa dos Bicos History

Although its eclectic design may suggest otherwise, the Casa dos Bicos dates back more than 500 years. In the early 16th century, Brás de Albuquerque, adviser to King Manuel I and natural son of the governor of Portuguese India, joined the entourage that accompanied the brilliant and ambitious Princess Beatrice to the Italian Peninsula for her marriage to the Duke of Savoy. While there, de Albuquerque was inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, notably Ferrara’s exquisite Diamond Palace, so named for its exterior walls which bear some 8,500 white marble blocks carved to represent the precious stone. When the nobleman returned from his trip, he commissioned the renowned royal architect Francisco de Arruda (designer of the Belém Tower) to create his very own Casa dos Diamantes (or House of Diamonds). The building’s curious façade, decorated with thousands of bicos or spikes, was punctuated with wonderful Portuguese Late-Gothic portals and windows. So extravagant was its design, that the expression ter a Casa dos Bicos (‘owning the Casa dos Bicos’) indicated someone who possessed a fortune.


Sadly, during the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that destroyed much of the city, the building was severely damaged. Two decades later, the Casa dos Bicos was partially restored, although the 16th-century structure was widely altered. In the 19th century, after being sold at public auction, the building served several functions, including acting as a warehouse for salted codfish, one of the most popular foods in Portugal. Acquired by Lisbon City Council in the 1950s, the Casa dos Bicos was partially rebuilt, and restored to its original dimensions three decades later. The upper storeys of the main façade were reconstructed with the aid of 18th-century drawings and paintings, which depicted a Renaissance loggia and Portuguese Late-Gothic windows.


The building housed the headquarters of the National Commission for the Commemoration of Portuguese Discoveries, before granting the upper floors to the José Saramago Foundation in 2008. Saramago was a 20th-century Nobel Prize-winning author of great significance in Portuguese literature. In 2011, the year after his death, an olive tree was removed from the village of Azinhaga, where Saramago was born, to be placed in the Campo das Cebolas in front of the Casa dos Bicos. The ashes of the famous writer, who spent his final years in self-imposed exile in the Canary Islands following a row over censorship, are buried under that tree.


The building’s ground floor is reserved for the permanent exhibition of something much older than the structure itself. During renovation, construction workers unearthed a section of the ancient wall that once surrounded the Roman city of Olisipo (Lisbon’s precursor from which we derive its modern name), along with remnants of a preserved and salted fish production unit whose goods were exported around the Roman Empire. From top to bottom, both inside and out, the Casa dos Bicos offers you the chance to chart the varied and fascinating history and culture of this great city.


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