ONE OF THE MOST popular excursions out of Lisbon is to Palácio de Queluz, the historic summer residence of the kings and queens of Portugal.
The palace’s colourful history stretches back to the middle of the 17th century. It was originally built as a manor house and hunting lodge for D. Cristóvão de Moura, first Marquis of Castelo Rodrigo. However, following the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy in 1640 and the acession of the Duque of Braganza the building was seized from its occupying Castilian sympathiser and incorporated into the assets of the Casa do Infantado, created in 1645 by Royal Charter of D. João IV.
In 1747, Prince D. Pedro, the younger son of D. João V, commissioned Mateus Vicente de Oliveira to transform the modest Quinta de Queluz into a sumptuous Rococo summer palace. By 1752 work on the central section, including a chapel and music room, was completed but after Pedro’s marriage in 1760 to his niece, the future Maria I, the palace was again extended.
The French architect Jean-Baptiste Robillion played an important role in the second phase of the extension, adding the west wing, the Robillion Pavilion and the gardens. The Frenchman, along with his team of elite Portuguese and foreign artists and craftsmen, also undertook the decoration of the palace’s three main rooms, the Throne Room, the Ambassador’s Room and the Music Room. Robillion’s architectural dilemma of how to link the lower gardens with the palace was solved by building the Lions’ Staircase. It is down these graceful steps that one descends to reach the azulejo-lined (tiled) canal where the royal family and guests went boating on warm summer evenings.
The gardens are seen as a natural extension to the palace. The Garden of Malta, which takes its name from the Order of Malta of which D. Pedro II was the Grand Master, was originally a lake but was later known as the Laurel Cherry Garden on account of the trees imported from the Netherlands in 1758 to embellish the landscape. Robillion’s Hanging Gardens are built over a water reservoir with Neptune’s Fountain as a point of reference. Both gardens are bounded by stone balustrades decorated with lead statues and intricate sculpture. The Gateway of Fame – a statue of Pegasus bearing Heroic Fame – is the point from which the main avenues of the gardens radiate.
Having been transformed into a summer palace, Queluz hosted regular operas, concerts and serenades as well as equestrian events, parties, birthdays and firework displays. From 1794, the Prince Regent, D. João VI and D. Carlota Joaquina were in permanent residence – along with their nine children. The royal family’s swift departure to Brazil in 1807 in the wake of the French invasions closed the most illustrious cycle of the palace’s history. The Court returned in 1821 but Queluz was home now to just Queen Carlota Joaquina, languishing in semi-exile and accompanied by her sister-in-law, princess Francisca Benedita. Later, King D. Miguel also resided at Queluz during the bloody fratricidal war against D. Pedro IV, first emperor of Brazil. Pedro died prematurely at the palace in the room known as the Don Quixote Chamber, so called because of the wall paintings by Manuel da Costa depicting the story of Cervantes’ hero. In fact the D. Quixote Chamber is one of the highlights of the tour visitors can make of the interior of the Palácio de Queluz. Other star features include the Throne Room and the elegant State Room, dating from 1770 and the venue for opulent royal banquets. The Sala dos Embaixadores was used for more formal affairs of state. The magnificient trompe l’oeil ceiling depicts the royal family attending a concert. The cavernous Music Room where Maria I’s orchestra performed, conjures up images of swirling ball gowns and gentlemen-in-waiting. Original period instruments are on display.
The palace is home to a valuable collection of decorative arts in the form of Portuguese furniture, Arraiolos rugs, portraits, and Chinese and European porcelain and silverware – with most of the pieces from the Royal Collections. The various rooms and chambers are decorated with gilt woodcarvings and painted wall canvases mirroring the evolution of period taste, from Rococo to the neo-classical.
Visitors are also offered a unique opportunity to witness the horsemanship skills of the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art. Riding thoroughbred Lusitanian stallions – whose bloodline can be traced back to the Royal Stud at Alter, founded by King João V in 1748 – a team of riders first perform an exhibition of work on the hand, including Levade, Corveta and Capriole, which is then complemented by displays of above –ground baroque horsemanship such as Pas-de-Trois and Quadrille. Exhibitions take place every Wednesday in the open-air ring from April to October (excluding the month of August).
Today, the only part of the Palácio de Queluz functioning in any official capacity is the D. Maria Pavilion, attached to the east wing of the palace, which has been the residence of foreign heads of state on their official visits to Portugal since 1957. The Clock Tower Building opposite, dating from the turn of the century and formally used for storing napery and housing palace staff, is now an elegant pousada.
By Paul Bernhardt