Arts Lost and Inspired by The Great Lisbon Earthquake of November 1, 1755

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The Royal Ribeira Palace prior to the 1755 Great Lisbon Earthquake as seen in the 23 meter long blue and white tile mural that survived the quake.

What was lost? 

In the Year of Our Lord 1755 on November 1st, All Saints Day, Portugal the “Queen of the Seas'” capital, Lisbon, was devastated by an estimated 9.0 Richter scale earthquake, what is referred to today as “The Great Lisbon Earthquake”. At this time, the arts flourished in Lisbon with the country’s peerless affluence as exemplified in extensive public and private tile works throughout the city and outlying areas, and glorified in the recently completed ostentatious Phoenix Opera House with its grand wooden cupola, of which all was but destroyed in the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami waves and mass fire that followed.The Royal Ribeira Palace along the Tagus river (now the modern day square of Terreiro do Paço) housed a Casa_Operamagnificent library of 70,000 books, the royal residence also harbored hundreds of works of art: ancient manuscripts, sculptures, tapestries, and paintings byTitian, Ruben, and Correggio —  all were lost.The royal archives disappeared, together with detailed historical records of explorations by Vasco da Gama and other early navigators’ charts and maps, plus works by Emperor Charles V, Hebrew bibles, and other treasures brought back from The New World, Asia and Africa by Portugal’s explorers. Only twelve of the seventy-two convents of the city were spared, along with their priceless relics. All the city’s hospitals with their medicinal knowledge and thirty-three palaces within the city with vast art caches were destroyed. 

After three centuries as one of Europe’s most vibrant, opulent and prosperous capitals during the Age of Discovery, Lisbon was almost completely leveled in a single day, along with its extensive tributes to the arts and collections.The material loss was astronomic for Portugal and its foreign traders: the British, the French, the Spanish, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. It is estimated the losses to foreign investors equaled approximately twelve million pounds sterling, of which, more than half represented British losses.

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Lisbon before the earthquake, tsunami waves, and mass fire.

Many thought it was the wrath of God that had struck the “Princess of a City” — Lisbon —  due to the excesses and riches and lavish lifestyles many indulged in and flagrantly enjoyed in the face of the Lord, his precepts, and the Inquisition. While those involved in the flourishing ideas of the Enlightenment in the north of Europe sought other reasons to explain the disastrous events. Lisbon was reduced to rubble with an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 left dead and saw the end of the city’s Golden Age, but also the birth of a new, more forward thinking municipality that would rise up from the ruins.


What was inspired? 

Never in European history had a natural disaster received such international attention, as Lisbon’s losses had no precedent in Europe. And it was because of the advent of newspapers and news pamphlets across the continent and outlying areas that news spread quickly of the disasters. Plus, Lisbon had one of the most important European ports for trade with the Americas, Asia and Africa, so word rippled swiftly out by sea and reached far and wide. Artist and writers alike swooped upon Lisbon to record and report on the catastrophes.

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Homeless, helpless, maimed and executed criminals forced to public camps by J.A. Steislinger (1755)

German engravers immortalized the before and after depictions of Lisbon with ink on paper with works like The Ruined Capital of the Imperial PortugueseThe collapse of Lisbon and the fires that followed on November 1 st of 1755, and Homeless, helpless, maimed and executed criminals forced to public camps by J.A. Steislinger. 

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“The Tsunami” by Vinkeles and F. Bohn

While Holland’s etchers recreated the scene of The Tsunami as produced by Vinkeles and F. Bohn.

big FrenchThe French sent their own lithographers to depict and record the destruction.

city-and-spectacle-a-vision-of-preearthquake-lisbon-5-728And for years to come paintings, engravings, and ex-voto works dedicated to saints, along with tile works were made recalling and remembering the tragic events of All Saints Day, November 1, 1755.  

Philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau were inspired by the tragic events and wrote works influenced by it. Voltaire’s novel Candide, Ou l’Optimimse (1759) Candide1759and his poem Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (“Poem on the Lisbon disaster”) directly observed and commented on the events. Whereas Immanuel Kant furthered and elevated the concept of the sublime, although in existence prior to 1755, by attempting to comprehend the enormity of Lisbon’s tragedies. Kant published three separate texts on the Lisbon earthquake, after collecting and investigating news pamphlets which were in large circulation about the events as he worked on formulating a theory as to the causes of the earthquakes. According to Walter Benjamin, Kant’s early book on the earthquake:  “..probably represents the beginnings of scientific geography in Germany. And certainly the beginnings of seismology.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also influenced by the devastation, he believed the severity of the events was due to too many people living within close quarters of the city. Rousseau used the earthquake as an argument against large cities, as part of his desire for a return to a more naturalistic way of life.

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Marques of Pombal by L.M. van Loo and J. Vernet (1766) oil on canvas

Innovative seismic architecture was developed after the earthquake to rebuild Lisbon as lead by King José I’s Prime Minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Count of Oeiras, later named Marques of Pombal. Pombal is famous for saying:  “What now? We bury the dead and heal the living.” and “The cultivation of literary pursuits forms the basis of all sciences, and in their perfection consist the reputation and prosperity of kingdoms.

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Pombalino style tile

The installment of large-scale prefabricated buildings was developed, along with a new style of tile work named Pomblinos which were characteristically fast and economical to make.

Pombal envisioned a progressive enlightened capital as opposed to the Lisbon of the past which was a city shackled by dogma and dominated by archaic Catholic orthodoxy that shunned science. From the ashes of Lisbon, Pombal created a new state-of-the-art capital with modern sanitation, wide streets and strict building codes. He saw this was a singular opportunity for renewal and advancement of Lisbon, a capital that could become a model for the rest of Europe. For it was the first time standardized prefabricated buildings were used on such a grand scale, and ones built with quake-resistant elasticity. Later, the avant-garde town planning was emulated in Paris, France by Baron Haussmann and in Barcelona, Spain by Ildefons Cerdà. Churches were rebuilt with more hardwoods and gold from colonial Brazil and re-embellished with monumental gold gilding, all lavished in the rich Portuguese Baroque style, reviving a new “Golden Age” as exemplified in the São Roque and Santa Catarina churches.

The renewal and transformation of Lisbon was a prodigious feat, one carried out by the determined, visionary, and at times consider ruthless Pombal. Today a statue of Pombal stands at the top of a monument in Terreiro do Paço along the Tagus river facing the rebuilt downtown, looking on to, not just survival but progress arisen from destruction. This history, plus more, and its people are given flesh, bone, heart and voice in my forthcoming novels:  Cut From the Earth and sequel Bury the Dead, Heal the Living. 

In Memory of All Saints Day 1755: The Great Lisbon Earthquake

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The Mocambo Barrio on the outskirts of Lisbon

On this day 258 years ago with the vast majority of Lisbon, Portugal’s population at church, earthquakes struck the city followed by tsunami waves and mass fire. The “Princess” of Europe’s capitals was destroyed. Today, the grievous day is often referred to as, “The Great Lisbon Earthquake”. I would like to send out a prayer to those who were lost on this day in 1755 and the subsequent months that proceed these horrific events.

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Artist rendering made after All Saints Day 1755

My novel-in-progress, Cut From The Earth, strives to recreate Lisbon before the tragedies, while Portugal was at the pinnacle of its colonial wealth and at its height of artistic developments in tile making. I’ve tried to bring to life what it might have been like on this disastrous day, and afterwards — and what was lost forever.

The exact origins of All Saints Day are uncertain. Although, after Christianity was legalized in Rome by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD a common commemoration of saints and martyrs of the known and unknown began to appear in various regions and on different dates throughout the Church’s reach.

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Fra Angelico Early Renaissance Italian painter

The primary reason for establishing a common feast day was due to the desire to honor the great number of martyrs, as there were not enough days of the year for a feast day for each martyr and many died in groups defending Christianity in the late Roman Empire. Therefore, a common feast day for all saints and martyrs seemed logical and appropriate. According to accounts, it was Pope Gregory III (731-741 AD) who dedicated an oratory in the original St. Peter’s Basilica in honor of all the saints and martyrs on November 1st in Rome, thus officiating the date.

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pão-por-Deus (God’s bread)

All Saints Day in 1755 Lisbon was not only a day to attend mass, it was also a day to make offerings, to light candles, and was to be a day of placing flowers upon the graves of loved ones. In addition, it was the day when groups of children went door-to-door before mass with cloth bags or baskets to receive chestnuts, pomegranates, and little cake-like breads called pão-por-Deus (God’s bread) .This tradition of giving and receiving pão-por-Deus would become a vital link to survival for those that lived through the dreadful day and those that followed, as they fled Lisbon, begging for God’s bread in the countryside.

Today may we remember the saints and martyrs and all those who have gone before us, while we prepare for All Souls Day tomorrow, November 2. It is a good day to read your favorite saint’s story (whatever your beliefs and affiliations) and to remember those who’ve come before us.

Click here for recipe: pão-por-Deus (God’s bread)