There is nothing more charming, nothing more delightful than the Portuguese façade. As M. Pelletan said in the Rappel, "one must admire at leisure this marvel, still in full bloom from the springtime of Portuguese art which, at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, covered the monuments with such exuberant vegetation of chiselling.
"It was the time of the great expeditions, of the maritime epics, when the fabulous riches of India and Brazil, discovered by the daring men who preceded or followed Christopher Columbus on the unknown oceans, flowed into Lisbon.
"A national art was born at that time, as rich as the nature of the new lands, as glorious as the adventures it celebrated, as sumptuous as the inexhaustible treasures with which the ships returned.
"They were like Lusiads of stone, celebrating the fantastic conquests and infinite hopes of this illustrious little country, which shared the globe in half with Spain!
"Such was the convent of Bélem, erected in commemoration of the voyage of Vasco de Gama, and which was the first to appear to ships returning to their homeland.
Let us add some more explanatory details about this façade.
The portal is none other than that of the convent of the Hieronymites of Bélem, which was built during the reign of Emmanuel the Fortunate at the beginning of the 16th century.
It is known that the Abbey of Belem (Bethlehem) was destroyed by the famous Lisbon earthquake.
It is the door of the church of this abbey that M. Pascal, architect of the National Library and one of the authors of Henri Régnault's monument, has, says our 19th century colleague, taken as a type for the façade of Portugal on the Rue des Nations. Although this artist had to remove the whole of the upper part of the abbey door and, diminishing the scale of the whole, was forced to fit the rest of the monument into the dimensions which were granted to it, this façade is perhaps, with that of Belgium, the most interesting to study and the one which attracts the most attention from the public and from artists.
The figure in the middle is the Infante don Henrique, who, in Bélem, appears in the same place; but the saints who, there, appear in the niches, have been replaced by a selection of great Portuguese men, executed by a series of feats of speed by Messrs. Watunelle and Germain, who in a few months reproduced the innumerable sculptures of this superabundant ornamentation. Many people believe that this door is only a moulding; not at all, M. Pascal has made a reproduction, thanks to the numerous drawings he brought back from a recent trip to Portugal, thanks to the photographs he was able to obtain and to the few prints that the commissioners of the Portuguese section and the Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon sent him.
Without wishing to return to the description we have given of this last façade, we must complete it with a few details explaining the incoherence of style that is striking in this otherwise very interesting construction.
The motif of the first arcade is borrowed from the cloister of Belem, a former convent of the Hieronymites, now a foundling asylum, begun in 1500 and itself presenting a combination of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance styles.
The second reproduces a motif from the large cloister of the Dominican convent in Batalha, founded by John I for the burial of the kings of Portugal, which was begun in 1388. The rest is almost a work of the imagination, inspired by various Portuguese architectural motifs borrowed from all over.
The construction is made of plaster on wood panels, and the ornaments are made of cardboard-stone.
©Les Merveilles de l'Exposition de 1878