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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Praça do Rossio in Lisbon

What is the Praça do Rossio?

The Praça do Rossio, officially called Praça Dom Pedro IV (English: King Pedro IV Square), is a Lively central square in Lisbon whose charming cobblestones have witnessed a turbulent history.

Praça do Rossio at night

Praça do Rossio History

This pleasing square has served as a prominent public space since the Middle Ages, when the population of Lisbon expanded further from its small seaside nucleus. In fact, the name Rossio means something like ‘commons’ in English, recalling the area’s original character, held in common ownership by ordinary citizens. This is a tradition of which to be proud, but thankfully another aspect of the rectangular square’s history has been lost: until the 18th century, the Praça was the site of burnings at the stake, bullfights and uprisings, as well as the location of the Inquisitors’ palace. Today, however, the Rossio is tranquil. It’s still lively though, a treasured place for social gatherings and evening drinks, all under the watchful eye of its central towering column.

In the 1820s, when the Liberals came to power in Portugal, a monument to the constitution was erected here in the square, on the very spot where today’s colossal memorial stands. Unsurprisingly, following the reestablishment of the absolute monarchy, a homage to the pioneering constitution was no longer appropriate; after only two years the monument was duly destroyed. A few decades later, a second memorial was built, this time paying respect to King Peter IV. Citizens mocked its ungraceful form, giving it the name O Galheteiro do Rossio (or ‘The Rossio Cruet’), since it resembled an ordinary domestic salt or pepper cellar.

King Pedro IV Square from above

Much to the people’s delight, this second monument met the same outcome as the first. Ashamed by its appearance and the criticism it received, the municipal government demolished the column in 1864. The third and final memorial, crowned with a bronze statue, still stands here in the Rossio to this day. Again, the figure is King Peter IV, Emperor of Brazil, but that wasn’t the artist’s intention. Cast in the likeness of Austrian Archduke Maximilian I, briefly Emperor of Mexico, the statue was on its way out to Central America when Maximilian was executed. The ship stopped here in Lisbon on its way from Marseille and a deal was struck with the local authorities. Peter and Maximilian, they decided, bore more than a passing resemblance, especially at a height. After a few minor alterations, the city had a new figurehead sculpture at a bargain price!

Beneath your feet you’ll see the Rossio’s distinctive paving, formed from thousands of hand-cut blocks intricately pieced together to create a wavy pattern. Although cobblestones had been used in Lisbon since Roman times, the first use of this kind of Portuguese paving, known as calçada, occurred in the 1840s at São Jorge Castle. And it made quite an impression, according to contemporary newspapers, as people flocked to the castle to catch a glimpse of this novel design. Later that decade, the same technique was employed here in the Rossio. Finished in just under a year, the square’s pattern was given the name Mar Largo (or Broad Sea), a nod to the shapes of the waves rolling into Lisbon’s shore, and also to Portugal’s former maritime might.

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