Portuguese royal palaces come in all shapes and sizes and are striking reminders of the country’s past. There are palaces set in the city of Lisbon itself and then others scattered throughout the city’s suburbs and into the countryside and hills of the surrounding area. Years ago I was part of a team from Christie’s asked to do an evaluation of an Noble family estate outside of Lisbon, but it wasn’t until last year that I was able to go back and further explore more of the royal palaces. All are quite accessible from Lisbon and should definitely be considered for those who love “palatial” house museums. Today a glimpse into one of my favorites: the Ajuda Palace in Lisbon.
In 1755 Lisbon was hit by a violent earthquake that killed thousands and leveled large portions of the city. The Portuguese Royal family happened to be in their palace at Belem outside of the city at the time and fearing another earthquake, King Joseph I refused to return to the Ribeira Palace, the traditional seat of the Portuguese monarchy in the heart of Lisbon. Instead, he had a wooden palace built on the site of the current Ajuda Palace, which would grow into today’s grand structure. The present palace began to take shape over the course of 100 years beginning in 1795. And like any good renovation project, it went on forever! In fact, it wasn’t until 1862 that King Luis and his Italian wife moved into Ajuda and made it into the family home it remained until the fall of the monarchy.
This just might be the grandest of all Portuguese royal palaces. The vast neoclassical façade rises above the Rio Tejo like a gleaming white wedding cake. Room after room opens en filade much like other royal palaces across Europe, but Ajuda is different in that when the Portuguese Royal family was forced to flee the country in 1910 with the fall of the monarchy, the new Republican government simply locked the doors and closed the palace for the next fifty years. That means the palace today is almost exactly as it was 100 years ago and is therefore one of the best places in Europe to see what life was really like behind the palace walls at the turn of the last century.
Beyond the grand Imperial throne room and vast formal dining room, the Ajuda Palace was a home. Rooms are filled with personal mementos of family who just happened to have ruled an empire stretching from the Brazil, across Africa to India and China. I love to see their family photographs and paintings scattered about the private rooms. I’m always thrilled when clients have cherished items they want me to weave into their new spaces. Many of the rooms have a collected feel – you can tell that furnishings were drawn from different houses and periods to create this eclectic Victorian look.
There is A LOT of layering going on – now, I’m not advocating this look for your home, but in moderation it works wonders. Note that nothing is too matchy-matchy. Color unites the rooms, but furniture and fabrics are different yet cohesive. Never buy a bedroom or dining suite where everything matches. Nothing could be more boring. Instead, work with a period or style and find pieces that complement each other.
On my visit to the Ajuda royal palace last year, I had the entire place to myself. It is a little off the beaten tourist route, but still just a short cab ride from downtown Lisbon. As I wandered the cavernous rooms alone, it was easy to forget the 21st century lay just outside. As with many museums in Southern Europe there was also a bit of quirkiness about the place. At the end of my tour, I realized that I had not seen the State dining room, so the ticket seller took me through the back maze of staff corridors to let me see the room. And having read that the palace is also the home of the Portuguese Crown Jewels, I asked him if that was true: “Oh yes!” he replied, “But you can’t see them, we keep them in a vault in the basement!” A lost opportunity to bring more tourists to one of the grandest of the Portuguese royal palaces!
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city
image credits: first image Richard Rabel; all others, LoveisSpeed blog
Check out other house museums in Paris, Madrid and Scotland
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