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At the present time, Palmela Palace is occupied by the Prosecutor General’s Office, the highest body of the Public Prosecution Service. This is a remarkable property, full of history, which marks the so-called Seventh Hill and which has been classified, since 2006, as being of public interest.
In this article we’ll introduce you to its patrimony, a reflection of the most refined taste of Lisbon in the second half of the 19th century.
From the First Construction to the Palmela Palace
The construction of the Palmela Palace was a happy chance that the crown ceded a plot of land next to the Fountain of Rato, which supplied water to the property, and that there were a lot of very good quality construction materials left over from the recent construction of the nearby Estrela Basilica.
The beneficiary was the Architect of the Crown and Public Works, Manuel Caetano de Sousa (1738-1802), author of remarkable projects such as the already mentioned Basilica or the Ajuda Palace.
It’s in this favourable context that the architect built his house between 1792 and 1794, a good house but still not a palace.
Less fortunate was the fate of his son and heir, also architect Francisco António de Sousa, who was sentenced to exile for involvement in political issues. The property was then expropriated, passing into the hands of the State and in 1822 it was put up for auction and bought by the future First Count of Póvoa, Henrique Teixeira de Sampaio (1774-1833).
During the next two years the building underwent transformation works and additions such as the noble staircase and the chapel that transformed this house into a palace. Thus, under the guidance of the Italian architect Luigi Chiari, the building gained a new look, very similar to the one we know today.
With time, by inheritance, the palace was passed on to the Dukes of Palmela in the mid-19th century. It was in this period that new renovation works occurred and that it gained a new dynamic, influenced by the personality of Maria Luísa de Sousa Holstein.
The Third Duchess of Palmela, Maria Luísa de Sousa Holstein
A remarkable personality in the arts and society scene of the 2nd half of the 20th century. In the 19th century, the Duchess, as she was commonly known, was a woman ahead of her time.
An aristocrat linked in a privileged way to the royal family, wedding goddaughter of Queen Maria Pia and King Luís, she was later mistress of the robes to Queen Amélia.
With a meritorious spirit and owner of an immense fortune, she created together with Maria Isabel de Lemos Saint-Léger, Marquess of Rio Maior, the Sociedade de Promoção de Cozinhas Económicas, an institution that sought to help food shortages of the population in need in Lisbon.
No less important was her role as a generous patron of the arts, through the acquisition of works by artists, monetary support, granting of scholarships and the provision of her studio to displaced artists.
An artist herself, a renowned sculptor awarded in Paris, she had two ateliers, one for painting and the other for sculpture, at Palmela Palace.
The Duchess had as her sculpture master the Frenchman Anatole Celestin Calmels (1822-1906), author of the sculptural set of the pediment of Paços do Concelho (Lisbon City Hall) and the iconographic programme of the Triumph Arch of the Praça do Comércio. It was this sculptor who was responsible for the decorative renovation of Palmela Palace, which refreshed and enriched it, while respecting the neo-classical legacy of the first intervention.
Also very connected to the royal family, he had such a close relationship with the dukes that today he rests in the Palmela tomb, the largest private mausoleum in Europe, located in one of historic cemeteries of Lisbon, Prazeres Cemetery, in its chapel where impressive sculptural works can be seen.
The Magnificent Interior of Palmela Palace
At 140, Rua da Escola Politécnica, just as you arrive at Rato Square, we find this austere building, whose imposing but sober façade doesn’t reveal the decorative exuberance of its interior.
The most distinctive feature of the building’s exterior resides in its main portal whose sculptural frame, crowned with the Palmela coat of arms, is flanked by two hermas that represent: on the left, the Moral Force and on the right, Work.
Through two imposing oak doors, which feature magnificent ironwork, we have access to its interior.
The vestibule has a magnificent floor in three colours of marble, whose elements form a geometric pattern that simulates three-dimensionality. There we find two impressive white marble sculptures, commissioned by the Duchess at a particularly difficult period in her life, due to the death of a son at an early age.
These are two allegories, on the left side the Pain, by the author Calmels like the hermas, and on the right side, dating from 1892, the Maternity, by the French sculptor Eugéne Guillaume (1822-1905) and whose model was the Duchess herself.
The staircase that gives access to the main floor impresses, once again, with the use of coloured marbles applied to the floors and the elegant twisted columns and the beautiful cast iron railings.
Along the walls, niches, now empty, allow us to imagine the richness of the past when they were inhabited by sculptures by the owner of the house and other artists.
When visiting Palmela Palace, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of the magnificent ceilings. Get ready to appreciate the neoclassical paintings and decorative elements on the ceilings and walls, where trompe-l’oeil effects, chinoiserie and tiles coexist harmoniously in an eclecticism typical of the 19th century romanticism.
Also worthy of note are the garden with its fresh house overlooking Rato Square, the sculpture pavilion today transformed into a multipurpose space, and two curious small pavilions, the former Casa da Manteiga (cool food storage) and pigeon loft, built similarly to the buildings present in the Garden of the Chalet of the Countess of Edla in Sintra.
Abandonment and Recovery
Palmela Palace was inhabited by the family’s descendants until 1977 when the Ministry of Justice acquired the property with the intention of transforming it into the Prosecutor General’s Office.
The project, however, was suspended for a few years during which the building was occupied by families returned from the former colonies.
On the fateful night of April 22, 1981, on the eve of the expected opening of the Prosecutor General’s Office, when the restoration of the palace was finally practically completed, a fire broke out and completely destroyed the palace’s chapel.
It was an admirable neo-baroque example, with a single nave and a vaulted ceiling, fully covered in gilded carving, of which only a few photographs remain.
The Prosecutor General’s Office only moved to this address in 1982. In the chapel space, there is now a gallery of portraits of the prosecutors.
Since then, a great effort has been made to preserve this magnificent house, with an important restoration campaign carried out by the workshops of Ricardo Espírito Santo e Silva Foundation in 2007.
The Prosecutor General’s Office opens its doors to anyone who wants to visit it through guided tours for groups, scheduled in advance.
Enjoy and get to know this emblematic space, once a palace of nobles, now home to the citizens of the Republic, where all visitors are welcome!
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