Now the scene of fiery political debates, the São Bento Palace was used for quite a different purpose when the first buildings were constructed there in 1598. Back then, one of Lisbon’s earliest orders of Benedictine monks possessed the land, and it was they who determined that a monastery should be built there.
The monastery was a large rectangular building featuring cloisters at each of the four corners. It was known as the São Bento da Saúde or St. Benedict’s Health because the monks helped to care for people suffering from the plague. Construction on the monastery carried on for many years. Unfortunately, the various buildings were damaged in Lisbon’s infamous earthquake of 1755, causing the need for more work to correct the damage.
In 1820, the Liberal Revolution effectively disbanded all religious orders. Upon the monks’ expulsion from their monastery and land, Portugal’s new government installed the national parliament there. This change in the building’s function meant that extensive renovations were required. A number of architects were called upon to assist with the project to build session rooms and other appropriate spaces.
The parliament continued to use the building until a fire in 1895 destroyed the lower house’s session room. Expansion and repair were called for, and it was these projects that gave the São Bento Palace its current appearance. Miguel Ventura Terra, a Portuguese architect, was put in charge of the project. It was he who altered the building’s façade, giving it the neoclassical look it is known for today.
The imposing edifice features a portico with thirteen columns as well as a triangular pediment. Simões de Almeida, a famous Portuguese sculptor, crafted the reliefs in the tympanum. Several statues also grace the front of the palace. Perhaps the most notable of these are the marble statues representing Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Strength. Two large lions guard the palatial staircase that leads to the building’s entrance.
The palace’s interior is no less impressive. In the entrance hallway, visitors encounter several busts representing past parliamentarians. The grand stairway, an addition to the structure in the 1930s, may be viewed to one side. The Senate Chamber and the Parliamentary Chamber are open for public viewing. These are particularly of interest when the members are in session.
The São Bento Palace occasionally hosts exhibitions by Portuguese artists. It’s highly desirable to visit the palace when an exhibition is happening, but it’s an interesting and worthwhile destination at other times as well. Also of note are the gardens behind the palace. They are laid out in meticulous geometric patterns and marvelously well kept. Other features in the garden include various fountains and sculptures, most of which are worthy of a photograph.
Although only a single chapel of the original 16th and 17th structures remain, this site has nonetheless borne witness to a great span of Portuguese history. The country continues to be shaped by events at the São Bento Palace, making this a fascinating spot at which Portugal’s past and future meet.