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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of the Palácio de Fronteira in Lisbon

What is the Palácio de Fronteira?

The Palácio de Fronteira (Fronteira Palace in English) is a historic house museum and cultural centre that was built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the noble Mascarenhas family.

Palácio de Fronteira

Bosc d'Anjou from Portugal, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Palácio de Fronteira History

Set here on the edge of the sprawling Monsanto Forest Park, the vibrant Fronteira Palace, once the home of Portuguese aristocracy, is one of the capital’s genuine hidden treasures. The palace was built in the 17th century, on ground then far removed from the city walls; it was intended as a summer residence and hunting lodge for João de Mascarenhas, 1st Marquis of Fronteira, a title granted in 1670 by King Peter II. The marquis also commissioned an adjacent garden inspired by Italian Baroque examples of the 17th century, with neatly manicured hedges and an enormous fountain in front of an arcaded wall, adorned with brightly coloured azulejos (or glazed tiles). At the time of its construction, the palace was three hours' ride from downtown Lisbon, where the family lived. In 1755, the devasting earthquake that rocked the city destroyed their downtown Lisbon residence. The magnificent Fronteira Palace came to their rescue, and was enlarged to become their primary home.

Anyone attracted by the characteristic decorative tiles that adorn so many of Portugal’s signature buildings will find in these palace walls some of the crowning examples. In the Battle Room, the tiles depict episodes from the 17th-century Restoration War – the struggle culminating in the nation’s independence from Spain, and in which Count João de Mascarenhas distinguished himself. In addition, the Panel Room is not to be missed, decorated (magnificently, if not surprisingly) with a series of Dutch tiles from the 17th century and portraits of the Portuguese nobility by leading artists such as Domingos António de Sequeira. The other two rooms are smaller and more intimate. One includes the sewing table that Queen Marie Antoinette of France gave to the 4th Marquess of Alorna.

To the southwest of the main building, you’ll find the Liberal Arts Terrace, a promenade featuring a wonderful set of tile panels. Accompanied by statues of Greek deities, these tiles represent the seven disciplines celebrated in the European Renaissance as the liberal arts. In the garden, you’ll spot animals such as cats and monkeys in small humanized panels, along with depictions of country customs, personifications of the seasons, mythological figures, and noble ancestors of the family.

Besides being classified as a national monument in 1982, the Mascarenhas family still live in the historic house museum today in a private wing. It was the brainchild of Fernando Mascarenhas, 12th Marquis of Fronteira, who died in 2014. Known as the ‘Red Marquis’, Fernando proved one of the staunchest opponents of the Estado Novo, the right-wing imperialist dictatorship which ruled Portugal in the middle of the 20th century. During the dictatorship, Fernando used the palace as a stage for clandestine meetings and was even called to testify. An educated man and patron of the arts, he sought to make his own estate a centre of free expression. He also held bridge tournaments here, organised guided tours and dedicated spaces for public and private events. In recent years, the palace has seen not only poetry recitals, colloquiums, and conferences, but festivals and concerts, often by major Portuguese ensembles and bands, many of which have been filmed. This vibrant program ensures that the Fronteira Palace remains central to the country’s cultural fabric.

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