The Torré de Belém is certainly Lisbon's most famous construction and at the same time most well known symbol. It stands surrounded by lawns on the bank of the Tagus to the west of the Hieronymite monastery. At this point the Tagus widens into a large bay.
Originally conceived as a lighthouse and simultaneously a defensive fortress for the port of Restelo, Manuel I had the tower built in 1515 on a small island off the river bank.
Av. de Brasília, 1400 Lisboa, Portugal
10am-5pm; Closed: Mon
Always closed on: New Year's Day (Jan 1), May Day / Labor Day (May 1), Christmas - Christian (Dec 25), Easter - Christian
Disability Access: Partial facilities for persons with disabilities.
Transit: Tram: 15; Bus: 14, 28, 43, 51; Rail: Belem
Many old views of the city show the Torré de Belém at a distance from the mainland surrounded by the waters of the Tagus. A former, older tower on the opposite bank and Belém's fortress tower were supposed to afford maximum protection for the harbor. A general shift in the location of the river bank has resulted in the tower now standing on the mainland right on the water's edge: a footbridge leads across an artificial basin to the entrance to the tower.
Francisco de Arruda began the construction in 1515. De Arruda came from Alentejo and was one of the most famous architects to use the Manueline style. He had studied with his older brother Diogo de Arruda, had then worked for some time in north Africa and was thus acquainted with the elements of the Arabic style - one of the reasons for the obvious Moorish influences in his work.
The Torré de Belém has been the setting for many historical events. These included the onset of Spain's 60 year rule of Portugal after the conquest of the tower in 1580. After Lisbon was taken by Napoleonic troops in 1807 the two upper stories of the tower were destroyed and wooden houses built in their place. In 1845 Minister Terceira had the tower restored to its original state.
The whole complex comprises a four story tower, easily visible from a distance, and ramparts which face the river and are built on a hexagonal ground plan. This was consciously created in the shape of a snub ship's bow jutting into the water. The main facade of the fortress is turned towards the sea and gives a completely different impression of the Torré de Belém than from the river bank side. The character of a fortress is expressed particularly in the offshore, lower bastion. Embrasures have been incorporated into the walls, battlements, formed by the juxtaposition of coats of arms, surround the top of the bastion. Small Arabic influenced, domed watch towers accentuate the corners.
The same elements of form can be observed on the external walls of the square tower: the small domed towers crown the four corners, two lower oriel towers have been fashioned in the same way. A platform at the top of the tower is lined by small battlements with pyramid shaped helm roofs. The three sides of the tower visible from the river bank incorporate twin windows and dainty, roofed balconies. The double arched windows, the small exits and a seven arched loggia on the side facing the river evoke Venetian associations.
Below the protective, richly decorated baldachin of the bastion stands a Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary: Nossa Senhora do Bom Sucesso (Our Lady of Good Fortune), the name also borne by the bordering harbor basin. A navigation light was previously installed here. An interesting story is hidden behind one of the very weathered corbels on the tower. The heads of lions, dolphins and rams can be seen below the bastion's small watch towers. A rhinoceros' head is visible below the western tower which faces the land. It is supposed to commemorate a rhinoceros that Manuel I received as a present from India - the first rhinoceros in Europe. It was immortalized in a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, which has since become famous. At that time it was hoped that the rhinoceros would fight an elephant on the Praça do Império to discover which was the strongest creature on earth - but apparently the elephant fled in fear at the sight of his opponent. Manuel wanted to send the rhinoceros by sea to Pope Leo X as a present but the ship was wrecked and sank off the coast of Italy.
Many typical elements of Manueline decoration are clearly recognizable: the coats of arms forming turrets and the railings on the small balconies bear the Cross of the Knights of Christ, while the Portuguese coat of arms with a crown can be seen on the main facade together with armilliary spheres on both sides. A stone rope, which on the side facing the land is entwined into a large knot, encircles the whole tower. Other nautical ropes contribute to the horizontal structuring. The embellishment of the corner towers and, in particular, the baldachin of the figure of the Madonna incorporates pillars, points and stylized organic leaf elements of unmistakably Manueline style.
Belem Tower Highlight
Belem Tower - Interior
The interior of the Torre de Belém is kept very plain. Store rooms for weapons and food were set up on the ground floor. The upper stories housed the Governor's Chamber and, above that, the King's Chamber (no longer furnished) with a small chapel above. The ceiling of the chapel has Gothic supporting beams, the crossing points bear Manueline decoration. The platform on top of the tower affords a fine view of the Tagus, the Atlantic to the west and inland, in good weather conditions, along a valley to the Sintra mountains and the Palácio da Pena. The lower rooms were used for some time as a prison. When the water level was high the prisoners had to stand in water up to their hips.