Lisbon claims to be the oldest city in the world, on the basis that it was thriving long before Athens, Rome etc. It also claims to have been founded by Odysseus on his way back from Troy: the name used to be Olyssepolis (city of Ulysses), Olissipo, Lisboa. Julius Caesar was there, and called it Julia Felicitas, and there are many Phoenician, Roman, Germanic and Moorish remains still visible on, and especially under, its seven hills.
We’ve just had a very enjoyable few days scratching at the surface of this warm and sunny place. Nobody tried to rob us, and I ate lots of that marvellous product of Portuguese civilisation, the pastel de nata.
One unfortunate parallel with Sicily, however, is that the Tropical Botanic Garden at Belem (we didn’t have time to go to the ‘ordinary’ Botanic Garden) is as ramshackle and overgrown with the dreaded Oxalis pes-caprae as its Palermo counterpart, and is also infested with ground elder, and the red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), against which ‘technical interventions’ are being made.
We spent the morning of our last day at the church and monastery of São Vicente da Fora, originally founded in 1147 by Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. São Vicente de Saragossa is Lisbon’s patron saint: Afonso had the relics of this deacon and martyr, protected by ravens at his original tomb on Cape St Vincent, brought by sea to Lisbon: hence the ship with two ravens on the city’s coat of arms. (Incidentally, St Antony of Padua came from Lisbon, where he was born as Fernando Martins de Bulhões in 1195: his reputed birthplace is now a church.)
The most striking element of the present complex of buildings (begun by Philip II of Spain when he became Philip I of Portugal in 1580, but not completed until years after his death) is the wall decoration – scenes of daily life, of the 1147 siege of Lisbon, and of forty of the fables of La Fontaine, created in the characteristic blue and white tiles of Portugal in the early eighteenth century. There are many scenes of contemporary gentlemen, huntin’, shootin’ and fishing, as well as standing around talking. Several of these figures reminded me of Dutch merchants of the same period on Delft tiles: I wished I knew more about the nuances of costume, and whether anything in the style of these hats, wigs, breeches, waistcoats and jackets was characteristically Portuguese, rather than (French-influenced?) pan-European.
Some rural scenes of peasants ploughing or musicians fighting are interspersed with pagan deities in unlikely chariots.
Aside from the goddesses, there are not many women in these scenes (right and proper, you may think), though there is one suggestive grouping of men and women dancing, while a young man urges a girl, garlanded like a May queen, to leave the group and go off with him.
But the most fascinating drawings are those of animals, whether as decorative friezes to the narrative scenes or as protagonists in the forty fables on display.
Sadly, La Fontaine’s ‘La cigale et la fourmi’, which I had to learn off by heart over fifty years ago and can still recite (even though I can’t remember what I was doing last Tuesday), was not among the fables illustrated. The tiles are painted in imitation of the engravings provided for the earliest edition of La Fontaine’s books, and are remarkably accurate, given that they are executed on a much larger scale and in a very different medium.
I hadn’t given it much thought before, but studying these 40 fables (out of a total of 239) really confirmed my adolescent view that La Fontaine was a cynical, self-serving, devil-take-the-hindmost sort of character – and thus, presumably well suited to the court of Louis XIV, to whose six-year-old son the first volume was dedicated.
These stories, in which kindness is so often rewarded by cruelty, a ‘virtuous’ man kidnaps his enemy’s son, and the ‘virtuous’ ant’s reply to the starving grasshopper could have given rise to Marie Antoinette’s (badly translated) ‘Let them eat cake’, don’t seem a very good educational tool for a future king. (I know that La Fontaine culled his stories from Aesop and eastern writers, and that very few are original, but even so…)
But as decorative art, and indeed social history, these lively and hardwearing panels of tin-glazed tiles (azulejos), Moorish in origin but influenced since the sixteen-century by Italian maiolica wares, would have rewarded much more close examination than we had time to give them. We may have to go back …