Inside the Portuguese Parliament

The Parliament Building hasn't always been used for lawmaking,.

Lisbon’s São Bento Palace has been classified as a National Monument since 2002, but it wasn’t always the place to get political: it was previously a place to pray, to heal, to be imprisoned, and to store stuff. Atlas was invited to join a guided tour of the building, and this is a little bit of what we learned.

The History of the Building

The building dates back to 1598, when the order of St. Benedict hired the Jesuit architect Baltasar Álvares to design and construct a new monastery for the Black Monks of Tibães. Once completed, it housed monks, and later, some of those condemned by the Inquisition, as well as the Torre do Tombo National Archives in the wake of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

After the Liberal Revolution of 1820 and the subsequent signing of the Portuguese Constitution of 1822, the monks were ousted and the Monastery of São Bento was transformed into the Palace of Cortes to house the Chamber of Peers and the Chamber of Deputies. Architect Possidónio da Silva oversaw the construction of the new chamber, followed by many other remodeling works, the largest of which took place in the first half of the 20th century based on the design of the famous architect Ventura Terra. Fun fact: His other works in Lisbon include the ornate Teatro Politeama, the imposing Alfredo Costa Maternidade, the lion-laden Santander Bank (formerly Banco Lisboa & Açores) in Baixa, and others.

Though Ventura Terra died two decades before the building was completed in the 1940s, the final design stayed more or less within the lines of his vision, including the sprinkling of his signature lion heads and arched windows and skylights. The building served as the traditional parliament of Portugal (also known as the Chamber of Peers) until 1910.

During Salazar’s Estado Novo regime, the main grand stairway, designed by Cristino da Silva, was completed, as was the Hall of Honor, in place of the original choir loft. This rather eerie room, which is now used for receptions, conferences, and other ceremonies, features particularly insensitive paintings depicting scenes of Portuguese maritime expansion. These were conceived from Salazar’s desire to underline the country’s historical prowess for colonization. It’s not surprising that the heroes in each painting are the benevolent and powerful Portuguese explorers, and all those under their thumb seem particularly pleased at the land grab. The second-largest Arraiolos hooked rug in the world can be found running from end to end. (The largest is in Arraiolos, natch!) Before the end of the dictatorship in the 1974 Carnation Revolution, pretty much all of the Parliament as we now know it had been fully completed.

Aside from the main Senate and Session Chambers that we see on TV, other highlights of the building include the lobby, also known as the room of the lost steps (Sala dos Passos Perdidos). This “waiting room,” now used for media interviews, is lined with six gorgeous oversized canvases alluding to the history of Portugal by the famous painter Colombano Bordalo Pinheiro, the younger brother of the great caricaturist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, who is famous for his hilarious vegetable and lobster majolica ceramics. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen them.

Visiting the Building

While you can take a virtual tour of the parliament building, requesting a guided tour is well worth the hassle. You can contact the Museum and Citizenship Division (DMC) by email at DMC.correio@ar.parlamento.pt or call +351 213919625 to get things started. The Passos Manuel Library, the Historical Archives, and the Bookshop are open to the public on most days (click here for more information), so be sure to check those out if you’re curious to get a feel for the space without booking a visit.

On Key

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