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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA)

What is the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga?

The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, or National Museum of Ancient Art in English, is a vast museum of painting, sculpture, craftsmanship in gold and furniture spanning more than a millennium.

muffinn from Worcester, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga History

The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (or National Museum of Ancient Art) preserves the nation’s most significant collection of public art. 40,000 fascinating artistic objects from all over the world reside here, fully accessible by the Portuguese people. Despite the museum’s slightly misleading name, these objects include paintings, gold and silverware, sculpture, tapestry, ceramics, furniture, drawing, engraving, and decorative arts from the early Middle Ages to the 19th century. The nucleus of the collection originates from Portugal’s suppression of its monasteries in the 1830s, which resulted in the nationalisation of the properties and possessions of over 500 religious orders. This initial collection was later augmented by items similarly expropriated from private collections of aristocratic families. Today, it’s come to encompass brilliant works by some of the most well-known European artists of the past 500 years, including Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Anthony Van Dyck, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Among these artistic marvels, you’ll also find some Portuguese national treasures. Gil Vicente’s Custódia de Belém (or ‘Belém Monstrance’) is an elaborate receptacle decorated with polychrome enamels fashioned from the gold brought back from present-day Tanzania by explorer Vasco da Gama. (A monstrance, in several denominations of Christianity, is a vessel designed to display an object of piety.) The Panels of São Vicente de Fora by 15th-century painter Nuno Gonçalves, meanwhile, present an unusual example of a ‘group portrait’. It’s a vibrant work, which originally formed part of the altarpiece of Saint Vincent in Lisbon Cathedral, and depicts 58 people gathered together around a double depiction of the saint.

MNAA Entrance

Fulviusbsas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The museum has been housed here in the Palácio Alvor, the Palace of the Counts of Alvor, since its foundation in 1884. The palace itself was built in the late 17th century by Francisco de Távora, the first Count of Alvor, on his return from Portuguese India, where he held the position of viceroy. In the mid-18th century, Paulo de Carvalho, brother of the Marquis of Pombal, chief minister to the king, bought the palace, though his family lost their grip on it; later the building became the residence of a wealthy Dutch diamond trader who sponsored its significant renovations.

The bright palace is typical of Portuguese civil architecture of the period, with a long façade running parallel to the street and a noticeably simple exterior design – ornament is mostly confined to the Baroque doorways. Inside, by contrast, decoration feels far more flamboyant. Two rooms showcase ceiling paintings by Florentine artist Vincenzo Bacherelli which employ optical illusions. Other rooms flaunt wonderful stucco decorations that complement the grandeur of the paintings and objects on show. Since the museum’s founding and in response to its collections’ exponential growth, new spaces have been made and incorporated: the chapel of the former convent of Santo Alberto, built in the late 16th century, covered in gilded woodcarving and tiles, is one example. Further extensions and renovations were carried out in the 20th century, which expanded the building’s exhibition space and established this as one of the finest museums in Portugal.

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