MUSEU NACIONAL DE ARTE ANTIGA (MNAA), LISBON, PORTUGAL: 25 June - 26 September 2021 >>
The production of this exhibition results of a collaboration between the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA), the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal and the Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo.
Curatorship: Joaquim O. Caetano, Rosa Bela Azevedo, Rui Loureiro.
In 2021, five centuries will have passed since the death of King Manuel I. This King’s relationship with artistic practice was one of the most important in Portuguese history, not only due to the intensity with which he promoted, sponsored and commissioned works of architecture, illuminated manuscripts, painting, sculpture or decorative arts, but also because of the way he used artistic production in his strategy of royal representation and affirmation. The King was responsible for the introduction, in the royal administration, of structures dedicated to the management of his artistic and architectural projects, creating inspectorates and incorporating artists in that system, having them occupy particular positions that included functions of administration, management and diplomacy.
King Manuel I's reign (1495-1521) corresponded with an intensity of artistic and architectural production which resulted in one of the most briliant periods of Portuguese art.
The personal taste of the King, the need to establish a visual and symbolic identity of the first monarch of the new branch of House of Avis, the availibility of funds and the notion of political importance which territorial expansion gave to the country were what gave rise to the enormous interest in renewed forms of artistic representation.
King Manuel I had a clear idea of their importance, using tem in the well structured ceremonial, administrative and political practice, in both the results and the creation of basic structures which governed and executed the numerous enterprices admired by his contemporaries and perhaps even surpricing to us today.
Garcia de Resende wrote that the arts of his time, which was the time of King Manuel, were “at their height”. The painters miniaturist, silversmiths and sculptors were better than at any other time and were equal or almost equal to the geniuses of Durer, Raphael and Michelangelo. While today we may consider his words exaggerated, they reflect his awareness of a high point in Portuguese art.
King Manuel not only brought together a significant number of artists in his court, while also financing costly enterprises, he also integrated them into his administration, granting them subventions and giving them positions of control in the arts, but also of diplomatic and representative importance.
Lisbon, we’ve seen her flourish
Both in peoples and greatness,
Growing vastly more dignified
In her buildings and in her richness,
In her might and her arms and her power.
Commerce and port unmatched,
This land stands without equal
In providence and in fruits,
In government and good troops,
Thanks to vision and wisdom regal.
Garcia Resende (1470 – 1536)
This group, which lived at court, participated in its ceremonies and culture; they created objects which reflected the opulence and mentality of the court, in a kind of mirror in which the King and those closest to him could see themselves. At the same time, the art they created, through public exhibition, multiplied and disseminated the visual identity of the King and became a symbol of his power.
The most famous work by a Portuguese goldsmith, recognised for its artistic merit and historical significance. Commissioned by the king Dom Manuel I for the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Belém (Jerónimos), the Belém Monstrance can be attributed to the Portuguese goldsmith and playwright Gil Vicente. It was made with the gold paid as a tribute by the king of Kilwa (in present-day Tanzania), as a sign of vassalage to the crown of Portugal, and was brought to this country by Vasco da Gama on his return from his second voyage to India, in 1503. It stands as an excellent example of the taste for pieces conceived as micro-architectures in the late Gothic period.
Designed to house the consecrated host and exhibit it for the veneration of the congregation, it presents the twelve apostles kneeling in the centre, with a swinging dove hovering above them, in white enamelled gold, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and, in the upper level, the figure of God the Father, holding the globe of the Universe. In this way, moving in an upward direction, the monstrance materialises the representation of the Holy Trinity.
The armillary spheres, the emblem of king Dom Manuel I, which mark out the knot of the central stem as if uniting two worlds (the earthly world, which spreads across the base, and the supernatural world, which rises upwards at the top of the piece), appear as the fullest possible consecration of the royal power at that historic moment of overseas expansion, confirming the spirit of the device of the Fortunate King.
In the context of King Manuel’s administrative reforms, it is worth highlighting the reform of the charters and the reorganisation of the royal archive. Known as the Leitura Nova (New Reading).
The first begun in 1497, provided Portuguese towns and cities with new instruments of rights and obligations. Invariably headed with the royal symbols and beginning with the monarch’s titular form of address, the reform of the charters was a powerful symbolic instrument of affirmation of royal power over the whole territory.
Manuel was not king to be,
The Infante’s youngest was he,
His symbol a ringed sphere,
The spirit of the pioneer,
For many a day abode,
Until prosperity flowed:
Six scions in line preceded him
All with rights above him,
Yet all would die before him
‘Fore he ascend the throne.
Garcia Resende (1470 – 1536)
Similarly, the Leitura Nova, a recompilation and reorganisation of the royal documents, organised in 61 books, was primarily an act of modernisation intended to make the royal chancery more efficient. But the visual and material magnificence of Leitura Nova leaves no doubt that project went beyond legal and administrative requirements, consisting also in an important exercise of power, materially confirming the elevated status of the monarch.
The first known examples of printed works in Portugal date from the reign of King Joao II, but it was under King Manuel that the press truly established itself and grew with great speed.
Works of religious, literary, technical, pedagogical and administrative nature were disseminated through printing workshops, almost all of them of foreign origin: German, French, Italian and Spanish, which were set up in Lisbon, Coimbra and Evora.
In addition to works sponsored by the King, the quality of legal and normative bodies, rules and constitutions revealed an early interest in using the press as an administrative tool. In parallel with national publications, King Manuel used the European press to disseminate military feats and news brought back by Portuguese naval expeditions, with clearly diplomatic aim of promoting the new international role of the kingdom.
Created in 1884, and housed in the Palacio Alvor for almost 130 years, the museum has had its current title for more than a century. It is the home to the most important Portuguese public collection of art.
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