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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Torre de Belém in Lisbon

What is Torre de Belém?

Torre de Belém, or the Belém Tower in English, is an iconic 16th-century maritime fortification that was later used as a state prison, which is named after the neighbourhood of Belém.

Belem Tower

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Torre de Belém History

By the early 16th century, Portugal had emerged as the dominant European power in maritime exploration; through the control this afforded over trade routes to Southeast Asia it had come to dominate the global spice trade. In the interests of defence of sea power, King Manuel I commissioned a fortification to defend the Portuguese coast from invading ships. He entrusted the project to architect Francisco de Arruda, famous in his own time for designing fortresses in Portugal and North Africa. Aided by the architect Diogo Boytac, de Arruda constructed a striking tower, to be surrounded entirely by water, in the so-called Manueline style. A variant of late or florid Gothic, this architectural idiom was named for the commissioning king and his prosperous reign. It’s characterized by the use of national symbols – the armillary sphere (a model of the celestial globe) or the cross of the Military Order of Christ – foreign animals, and vegetation from the various colonies of the Portuguese Empire, as well as Moorish art (‘Moors’ being the European name for Muslim settlers of the Iberian Peninsula). The style’s Islamic elements can be clearly seen in the exuberant window balconies and turrets. In fact, the turrets imitate those of the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh, where de Arruda had worked for two years.

The fortification, known as the Tower of São Vicente (or Saint Vincent) at the time of its construction in a nod to Lisbon’s patron saint, presents a form very similar to the keep of medieval castles. In this early modern keep, however, there’s room to place the latest artillery, in order to better defend the coast. The military architecture of the tower, with two floors of firing positions, was markedly innovative in Portugal. On the western exterior wall of the monument, you can admire the first sculpture in Western European art of a rhinoceros: the unwitting model might well have been the same beast presented by King Manuel I to Pope Leo X in 1515.

Towards the end of the 1500s, Portugal began to be governed by King Philip II of Spain after a coercive Iberian Union. The Belém Tower came under the management of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba. At that time, the fortification ceased to be a bastion of maritime defence and instead became a state prison, with inmates incarcerated in its water-lapped dungeons. In this guise it continued to be used until the mid-19th century. Less than 20 years after the state prison was closed, the Romantic writer Almeida Garrett pushed for the restoration of the Belém Tower. King Ferdinand II, who was responsible for much restoration work on Portuguese monuments, ensured that the iconic structure was revamped for its third and happiest use, as a historical site and emblem of modern-day Lisbon.

In 1907, the Belém Tower was declared a National Monument and in 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This national symbol is considered one of the seven wonders of Portugal and stands with its bold silhouette as a striking reminder of the Portuguese Empire’s maritime power, and the wealth it created, in the 16th century.

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