Romanticism in Science – Pena National Palace
The Pena Palace sits on a high peak of the Serra, dominating the views from the town of Sintra. An architectural work of pure Romanticism, the palace was once a monastery that was severely damaged in the great Lisbon earthquake in the late 18th century.
Despite this, the chapel, attributed to the early 16th Century French architect Nicolau Chanterene, remained mostly intact. In 1838, it was acquired by Prince Ferdinand II and transformed into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family.
The palace was given over to a German architect, who transformed it in just over a decade. With strong input from Queen Maria and the King, the ruined monastery was transformed into a tribute to the multitude of architectural influences that existed in Portugal at the time, as well as its wider colonies. In the Palace of Pena, medieval Catholic and Islamic elements rub shoulder with the styles of Scientific Romanticism, influenced by Greek mythology.
This is immediately apparent upon entering the Palace. For above one of the main doorways into the inner courtyard, there is a large sculpture of Triton, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea. Triton squats over the doorway, adorned with intricate motifs of waves, corals and other nautical symbols. On his shoulders rests a huge bay window, its colonnettes carved with grapes, vines, and flora and fauna of the land.
This impressive sculpture must be understood in the context of its time. In 1838, when the Palace of Pena was acquired, Darwin had just conceived his theory of natural selection, and this impressive sculpture was a tribute to this world-changing scientific advancement. Bridging the evolutionary jump of life from the sea, onto the land.
Prince Ferdinand’s reputation and tastes as a man of the arts and sciences proliferate throughout the complex. Similar motifs can be found all over the Palace of Pena. High up in the palace, in one of the private rooms, is his study and workshop, now turned into a museum of all the equipment and art he once possessed. The most interesting piece of art is a bronze sculpture of a Greek goddess (to be honest, I can’t remember which one it was, Artemis most likely, or maybe Gaea), undressing before some lenses. The title of the peace is “Nature undresses herself before science”, quite telling.
Apart from the interesting references to the scientific developments of the time, merging with Catholicism and the resurgence of ancient mystical cults and practices, the palace was also a melting pot of architectural styles.
In an inner courtyard, part of the monastery, tiles from all over the Portuguese empire were put on display. Now, most of it has been worn by the elements, but it is still possible to make out the huge variety in designs that line the walls. Here uniformity gives way to diversity, with elegant and aesthetically pleasing results.
Our tour of the palace ended through the palace kitchen. A large, cavernous hall populated with original culinary artifacts that had been in use when the palace was populated. For anyone with a love for the culinary arts, this kitchen is a dream. With its spacious halls, large ovens and all sorts of equipment you could think of, as existed at the time.
Aside from the architectural wonders was the view of Sintra from the Palace of Pena, and the forested Serra (along with the peak where the Statue of the Warrior stands upon, overlooking the Atlantic).
Extending this beauty and eclecticism to the park surrounding the Pena Palace, Ferdinand had trees from a many diverse, distant lands planted here. Among these are the North American Sequoia, Chinese Gingko, Japanese Cryptomeria, ferns from Australia and New Zealand and shrubs and succulents from Northern Africa.
The flora in the park greatly resembled (at least to me) the one found in the Cova crater we had seen on Santo Antão, in Cape Verde. But this was not really surprising, as many plants and trees had been brought over to the Portuguese colonies. Creating a living token and testament to their naval power and conquests in previous centuries.