The Mysterious Mafra Palace

by on January 23rd, 2011
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Lovingly located 18 miles northwest of Lisbon, on the Portuguese west coast, the lavishly ornate Mafra National Palace literally defies description. Magnificent, vast and quite overwhelming; the Baroque Royal Palace was built to fulfill a sovereign promise made by King João (John) V to the Queen, Mary of Austria.

If the Queen would bear King João V a son and heir to the throne, the extravagant monarch would build Mary of Austria a palace that would rival any kingdom in the world.

King João V kept that promise. Construction commenced with the ceremonial laying of the first stone on November 17, 1717 with a grand ceremony in the presence of King João V, Queen Mary, attended by his entire court and the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon.

In keeping his promise to his Queen, King João V also kept his previous promise to the church to build a new monastery for 13 Franciscan friars as a seal of his faith and in penance for his well-known sexual extravagances.

Considered the most important Portuguese Baroque monument from the 18th Century, the grandiose Mafra National Palace encompasses a basilica, the royal majestic palace and a beautiful convent, of the Order of St. Francis. Mafra Palace’s exhibit of exquisite Italian sculptures is unsurpassed; the remarkable group of sculptures in the entrance of the Church – the greatest of its kind in the world, with 58 marble statues commissioned from the leading Roman sculptors of their time is an artistic achievement. The magnificent sets of bells, carillons and organs are the finest anywhere.

King João V wanted the palace and basilica to compete in grandeur and magnificence with St. Peter’s in Rome and Spain’s Escorial Palace. It seems the King had a bit of an attitude towards the controlling power of the Vatican, the palace at Mafra was his response.

Generously financed by the abundance of Brazilian gold and ruthlessly driven by the monarch’s angry ambition to rival the splendor of Papal Rome, the project grew out of all proportion. After several alterations in plans, the King himself ordered the monastery to be increased to accommodate three hundred friars, whilst guaranteeing the funds required for the completion of the palace’s construction.

At the time it seemed that such a herculean project would never be completed. Artisans, craftsmen and workers from all over the world were secured. At one point, there were 50,000 men working on the project. More than 7,000 soldiers were deployed to oversee the workforce.

King João V appointed a German goldsmith, Johann Friedrich Ludwig (called by the Portuguese as João Frederico Ludovice) as his architect and under his diligent supervision the workers created 880 grand halls, ballrooms and general rooms, 5,200 doorways, 2,500 windows, 154 grand staircases, 29 impressive courtyards and two incredible bell towers that boast the world’s largest collection of bells (56 in each). The joyous peal of the bells can be heard for 15 miles.

The halcyon Mafra Palace was inaugurated in 1730 with a memorable celebration that lasted eight days and included most of the 57,000 workmen and soldiers who had been involved in its construction.

Although the Basilica was consecrated in 1730, the palace construction was far from finished. Final detailed work on the project continued for a number of years.

The palace was constructed symmetrically, radiating from a central axis, occupied by the basilica and continues lengthwise through the main limestone facade until reaching two major towers. The structures of the convent are secreted behind the main façade. The Mafra Palace also houses the famous palace royal library.

The Rococo Library, located at the back of the second floor, is truly the highlight of this remarkable palace, rivaling the glory and grandeur of the library of the Melk Abbey in Austria.

The Mafra Palace’s precious library collection of over 40,000 rare books is unique in the world. The extensive treasure of rare books, attesting of the extent of western knowledge from the 14th to the 19th century, is preserved by ancient, time proven methods. The rules are strict; no direct sunlight, jacaranda wood shelving, air circulation between the walls and the palace hosts a huge bat colony to combat destructive insects.

The spacious royal living suites are situated on the second floor. The King’s quarters were on one end of the palace while the Queen’s lavish apartment was located at the other end of the palace. The distance was so great that when the King left his suite to go to the Queen’s quarters, his departure was announced to the Queen by the sound of trumpets.

Within a giant courtyard behind the church and the palace is situated the monastery of the Franciscan monks of the Arrabida Order (Ordem de São Francisco da Província da Arrábida). The blessed monastery has cells for about 330 friars in long corridors on several floors, a pharmacy and small hospital.

Mafra Royal Palace was rarely occupied permanently by royalty, who considered the rooms too dank and gloomy. However, it was a popular holiday destination for the members of the royal family who enjoyed hunting in the nearby Tapada National de Mafra game preserve.

The Tapada Nacional de Mafra, a breathtakingly beautiful wildlife park that adjoins the palace, was also created during the reign of King João V. This inviting natural park was built for royal and court recreation and entertainment. In addition to its role as a hunting reserve to educate and delight young royalty, the reserve provided food and firewood for the palace and the religious community.

Covering over 8 square kilometers, the park holds many different species of wild boar, fox, deer and birds of prey. A rich diversity of wildlife coexists in an unusually rich and diversified natural habitat. A favorite of the Portuguese monarchy for hunting and other leisure pursuits, the Tapada de Mafra took on a noble connotation that has done much to aid its continuity and preservation.

The Royal quarters were last occupied by Dom Manuel II as an overnight resting-place on his bold escape to England in 1910 aboard his yacht moored secretly at the nearby port of Ericeira.

The royal palace is cloaked with many legends. Locals tell frightening stories of giant rats, capable of killing and eating people that inhabit the palace. The rats are said to leave at night in order to prey on the cats and dogs of the area. The origin of this legend is the gigantic sewer system built beneath the palace.

Another often told legend speaks about the existence of a secret tunnel, linking Mafra to Ericeira. King Manuel II reportedly used the tunnel to escape exile and remained in Portugal. There are also many alleged connections between the Palace’s location and the mystery and mythology surrounding the Fifth Empire.

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