Portugal’s enlightened despot celebrated in Oeiras

news: Portugal’s enlightened despot celebrated in Oeiras

OEIRAS WAS in a party mood last weekend celebrating the annual ‘Festa Pombalina’, which marks the life and works of Portuguese statesman Marquês de Pombal.

Oeiras Câmara organised various pageants, theatricalities and Baroque classical music events in the picturesque heart of old Oeiras, a stone’s throw from where the Marquês de Pombal had his impressive country palace.

This year’s celebrations have a special significance owing to the fact that this is the 250th anniversary of the Great Lisbon Earthquake, which devastated the old Manueline city one Sunday, when most people were in church, and claimed 17,000 lives.

The Marquês de Pombal then spearheaded an ambitious project to rebuild the city’s downtown area, along the clean classical lines of a grid system, which can be seen to this day in the Baixa area.

The celebrations, opened by popular Oeiras Câmara President, Teresa Pais Zambujo – widely expected to win the upcoming local district council elections later this year – included a full programme of events. Among them were groups of “slaves” playing drums in front of the Matriz church, various stalls attended by local 18th century peasant folk in traditional costumes, fine and dandy ladies and cavaliers from the court of Dom José I, complete with periwigs and long velvet jackets, breeches and tricorn hats, and various orchestras in blue and mustard liveries playing Bach, Handel and Mozart.

Later in the afternoon on Saturday, instructors came up from the Marquês de Pombal’s palace to lead minuets, gavottes, pavannes and sarabandes with the locals. Following a theatrical show, there was a royal procession from the Palácio dos Arcos down to Largo da Igreja Matriz (church square) and ending up at the Palácio do Marquês de Pombal. This procession celebrated and re-enacted the reconciliation dinner, hosted by the Marquês de Pombal and his Austrian wife, for King José I. They had fallen out over the monopolies question when the Marquês effectively became the richest man in Portugal – far richer than the king – because he controlled the monopoly taxes on the fish that served Lisbon, caught at Paço d’Arcos.

A master organiser but a ruthless tyrant, the Marquês had been a diplomat in both England, where he was attached to the court of George II, and Austria. In 1749, the Marquês returned to Portugal after serving abroad for 11 years.

Probably, along with Salazar, the most dynamic figure in Portuguese history, the Marquês de Pombal supported absolutism, was anti-clerical and a tireless organiser. Not only did he supervise the reconstruction of Lisbon, but he expelled the Jesuits, ended slavery in Portugal, modernised educational and military institutions, encouraged agriculture and industry, and exploited the huge wealth of Brazil. He was effectively the real power behind the throne until José’s heir and daughter Mad Maria I sacked him and banished him from Lisbon following her father’s death in 1777.

The events continued on into Sunday and each day was closed with a spectacular fireworks display at the Palace Gardens. C.G.