Lisbon can be seen as a metaphor of our times: the tremendous earthquake that destroyed it was so tragic that it shocked and inspired bitter thinkers in the cultivated Europe of the time—but after a mere two and half centuries, a really brief period in terms of history, it seems as if nothing happened and life goes on as usual
Empires come and go, but not without turmoil. If we check in the Bible, we will find a kind of imperial graveyard. Now, where are the mighty Babylon, the “home” of the great “first lawmaker”, Hammurabi (18th century BC), the sophisticated Athens, the all powerful Rome, the one which called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) and ruled over Palestine at the time of Jesus, as over many other places and peoples? They are all gone, and what remains of their past grandeur and power are just a few ruins (and the awe they inspired in the past). Not one went down without a kind of “earthquake”: battles, conquests, until some other dominant power took their place.
Even if they once looked eternal, history is made of change, and to our human minds, aspiring to stability and predictability, in the periods of quick change, it seems the sky is falling and the “Apocalypse” is close. However, at its own pace, the rules of history play their role and a new normality is finally reached, sometimes “only” a few centuries afterwards. As in the always evolving nature and universe, also the times need to evolve. Natural evolution implies suffering and death, and so does the historical and cultural one—ask any woman at hand if there is a birth without any kind of pain. What is born is at the same time radically new, and a rebirth—or a re-arrangement—of all things past.
This happened in the early Middle Ages, after the fall or, in fact, disintegration of the Roman Empire, when “the barbarians”—the German peoples, today quite civilized—were “at the gates” (barbarian means just stranger, the one who does not belong to any given dominant culture). During the long period of conflicts that followed, the towns—always the most coveted prize, because it was there that the power (and the ransacking) stood—became exceedingly chaotic and dangerous. Until someone had a great idea: let’s go again to the fields that are abandoned, cultivate them and start again. The icon of this movement was St Benedict (480–547 AD, Italy), the patron saint of Europe and the father of monasticism.
With it, a new agrarian revolution was born, as well as the spread of Christianity and the birth of a new cultured class, the clergy. From this new impetus, universities sprang up in the cities—the big one in Paris but also the small one in Coimbra, at the centre of Portugal—and learning became much more widespread than during the Greek or Roman times, where erudition depended on a caste and slavery systems. What seemed the end was, after all, just a renewal, like a great spring after a long winter.
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal—now experiencing a tourist invasion—seems to the newcomers to look exactly as it was more or less 900 years ago, when it was conquered from the Moors by the country’s first King, Afonso Henriques, with the help of a few British crusaders that were on their way to the Holy Land. What an illusion! People don’t even notice that the very few buildings that resisted the devastating earthquake that happened on All Saints Day in 1755, such as the Jerónimos Monastery, the See Cathedral or, at the very top, the Saint George Castle, were painfully rebuilt since then and look, in some cases only vaguely, like the original.
In fact, we’ll never know if they have indeed any similarity, because even the anterior iconography and archives were destroyed, first by the earthquake and the consequent tsunami, and finally by the great fire that consumed the rest. Only two or three years ago, two small pictures were discovered by chance, forgotten in an old London mansion, that allow us to imagine how the city looked in the 16th century: at the time it was an urban centre as important as today’s New York. Until then it was not possible to have the slightest clue.
Like an old knife
Also by chance (or fate, a concept that is behind the Portuguese word Fado, inherited from the Moors), at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, what is now considered the “crown jewel” of Portuguese painting, Os Painéis de São Vicente de Fora (the Saint Vincent Panels), was found being used as wood scaffolding. Fortunately, a learned person saw them and immediately understood they were art, and great art. For many years, they were subjected to careful study and restoration, but even then no one knew in what sequence they were arranged, until a very good painter and poet, José de Almada Negreiros, looked at the tiles on the floor in the paintings and, following the pattern, arranged them. Very little is known about them and they remain a true mystery: they are from the 15th century king’s painter, Nuno Gonçalves, and books are still being published with new theories about the figures represented in them.
We can affirm that they represent the royal court, the clergy and all significant groups, from friars to fishermen in adoration of the patron saint of Lisbon, the Valencian martyr, Saint Vincent. At the king’s feet lies a bunch of ship cordage, where some see, in the middle, a sketch of the map of the country. The rest remains an unsolvable mystery: why is Saint Vincent represented twice? Why was the particular page of the Gospel he shows (that is legible) chosen? A sage refused to enter the speculation game, and said, “It’s quite simple. It is just a whole nation taking its picture.”
Since pre-historic times, the very good natural harbour of Lisbon, at the intersection of Tejo’s (Tagus River) estuary with the Atlantic, rich in fish and in a zone surrounded by pleasant and fertile fields, was valued and coveted by all kinds of peoples, including Romans and Phoenicians. People of all races and continents lived here—including blacks from Africa and Indians from the Americas or from India. When one is there, one doesn’t realise that such a tragedy happened about two and half centuries ago. It seems that everybody that passed by or continued to live there, left an imprint of their souls in the stones and in it’s unique light. That permanence at the centre of impermanence can be felt as a solace in such troubled times as ours.
Cities, nations, peoples and the whole of humanity can be compared to an old knife: along the ages, the handle or the blade keeps being changed, while the knife remains the same and even cuts better.