The Military Museum in Lisbon was, for me, one of the ‘must see’ places to visit in the city, so poor Tammy got dragged along. It is home to what is probably the finest collection of pre-20th century artillery in the world, much of which sits out in an enormous courtyard for lack of room to pack it all in inside.
In the 16th century the building housed a foundry where cannon were cast. Some weaponry was still manufactured on the site until the early 20th century. Now the foundry space houses a chronologically arranged exhibition demonstrating changes in the technology of artillery through the centuries.
The Artillery Museum was founded in 1851. As suggested by the change of name to Military Museum (in 1926), there are more than just cannon on display. Besides swords and firearms and a couple of knights in full armour, there is rather a fine display of kris, obviously particularly fascinating to me.
(Don’t know what kris are? Have look at my post about them on my old blog site.)
The place is worth a visit even if you are not that interested in the exhibits. The building itself is designed as a triumphalist memorial to Portugal’s military history. The grand entrance arch gives you a clue.
The rooms have been decorated by leading Portuguese artists to celebrate their country’s military prowess. Paintings, carvings and tapestry describing Portugal’s history. The journey through the Museum was designed as a learning experience. The military items and paintings on display are designed to teach the visitor about key moments of Portuguese history, such as the discovery of the sea route to India, the Portuguese participation in the First World War and the pacification campaigns conducted by Mouzinho de Albuquerque in Mozambique in the last quarter of the 19th century.
The effect is both impressive and simultaneously slightly mad. It hints, I think, at the psychology of the dictatorship under which much of it was developed.
The Military Museum ranks 73 out of 526 on Trip Advisor’s list of things to see in Lisbon. This says a lot for the ambivalence of modern Portugal towards this celebration of a more militaristic colonialist past. The Museum is hardly promoted at all: when we were there we appeared to be the only visitors. That’s a shame given how fascinating the place is. If you are ever in Lisbon, do go and see it.
After another ridiculously huge and delicious lunch we made our way to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. This was no ordinary monastery, though. The existing building was started in 1501 and paid for by the then King, Manuel I. In exchange for their subsidy, the monks were ordered to pray for the soul of the King and to provide spiritual assistance to sailors themselves from the nearby port. The monastery therefore, like the Museum, became an emblem of the power of the state and Portuguese maritime hegemony. As with the Museum, this was expressed in elaborate decoration and sheer scale. In the 16th century, though, the money available for such vanity projects was even greater than in the 20th century and the result is a building on a stupendous scale.
The church is enormous and highly decorated, but it the cloisters of the monastery are even more impressive. At first glance they really don’t look that big. This is because their proportions are so perfect that it is only slowly that you get a sense of their scale.
Maybe the view along one side of the cloister gives a better idea of the scale of the place.
The monastery was secularised in 1833 and now houses museums. It’s still used to symbolise State power, but now that Portugal is not a great international power, the State is the European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon was signed there in 2007.
A sort walk along the banks of the Tagus (feeling very chilly as the freak heatwave is ending and it’s already dusk) and we get to the Belém Tower. Built in the early 16th century in the same style as the monastery, the tower is mainly famous for being very pretty. It was originally designed as a defensive fortification from which cannon should have been able to protect Lisbon against ships travelling up the Tagus but it’s far too close to the shore and never really offered any serious defence.