When we visit a Portuguese city, one of the first features we observe is under our feet. I am talking about the Portuguese cobblestone pavement, a true work of art that with various drawings decorates the Portuguese cities.
But what is the history and origin?
There is a story that tells us that the Portuguese sidewalk originates because of a rhino. Do you remember Ganga, D Manuel’s white rhino? If you still don’t know him, you can read his story in my October 29th article on my blog (https://lisbon-a-love-affair.com/en/2020/10/29/o-rinoceronte-do-rei/ )
Now, it all starts with the arrival of the rhino.
On the birthday of the Rhino that only leaves once a year in the winter on January 21st, a huge procession was organized that would take to the streets of Lisbon showing the new riches of the king who arrived from the east. In this procession, Ganga could not be missing, obviously and so that the richly ornamented rhino would not wallow in the mud, soiling himself and those around him, D. Manuel ordered the streets where the procession would pass to be paved.
The royal letters of 20 August 1498 and 8 May 1500, signed by King D. Manuel I of Portugal, mark the beginning of paving the streets of Lisbon, most notably Rua Nova dos Mercadores (formerly Rua Nova dos Ferros)
It was used granite from Porto, however its transport made the work expensive for the coffers of the kingdom, but the Rhino deserved it
This was how the Portuguese sidewalk appeared, more irregular than we know it today, but it was its beginning.
Subsequently, the 1755 earthquake destroyed much of the city and its cobbled streets with it. But only in 1842 Lisbon would see a reconstructed sidewalk again, this time with limestone, usually white and black, material abundant in the region. In this way, practically cubic stones were applied, which is how we know them today and all over the world where Portugal left its mark.
The work was carried out by prisoners, at the behest of the Governor of arms of the Castle of São Jorge, Lieutenant-General Eusébio Pinheiro Furtado.
The design used on this floor was of a simple outline (zig-zag type) but, for the time, the work was somewhat unusual, having motivated Portuguese chroniclers to write about the subject.
After the success of the contract, funds were granted to Eusébio Furtado so that the prisoners also paved the Rossio Square, in an extension of 8,712m². This work ended in 1848, with drawings honoring Portuguese discoveries, and became known as Mar Largo. This fashion quickly spread throughout the country and the colonies, where authentic masterpieces were produced in pedestrian areas, ennobling the urban public space, in an ideal of modernization of cities.
Baixa de Lisboa changes with most of its streets to be paved with basalt, among them Largo de Camões in 1867, Príncipe Real in 1870, Praça do Município in 1876, Cais do Sodré in 1877 and Chiado, ending in 1894. Avenida da Liberdade opens in 1879 and in 1908 it finally arrives at Marquês de Pombal with wide sidewalks where beautiful and dazzling design carpets were introduced, making Lisbon the reference city for this type of artistic floor .
But the sidewalk is not only found in Portugal. In the century XV the overseas territories of Portuguese influence also saw the stone of the same origin line their streets
This was due to the fact that many of the ships leaving for these destinations go empty, in order to return loaded with local goods and merchandise, and for this reason they need to increase their cargo and thus guarantee their navigation stability – the so-called ballast. The solution found was to load the Portuguese stone vessels from Lisbon.
A distant example of this expansion of the Portuguese pavement is Macau – former Portuguese administrative territory and perhaps the territory outside Portugal with the largest pavement area. The motifs of the drawings are, in the majority, of caravels, wind roses, shells, fish, stars or waves of the sea. Not even after 1999, when the sovereignty was transferred to the People’s Republic of China, this area decreased, on the contrary, even today this type of pavement is implemented, even by Chinese pavers, formed by Portuguese masters.
Currently, we can still find old Portuguese pavement pavements in Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, India or Timor. Or even find new examples, as in Spain or the U.S.
The tampering tools with the help of a hammer, make small adjustments in the shape of the stone, and use molds to mark the areas of different colours, so that they repeat the motifs in linear sequence (friezes) or in the two dimensions of the plan (patterns) . 20th century geometry demonstrated that there are a limited number of possible symmetries in the plan: 7 for the friezes and 17 for the patterns. A work of young Portuguese students recorded, on the sidewalks of Lisbon, 5 friezes and 11 patterns, attesting to its richness in symmetries.
The most common sidewalk application techniques stand out: the old Portuguese sidewalk, which is characterized by the irregular form of application of the stones; the gavel, similar but with more space between the stones; the classic Portuguese sidewalk, which has a diagonal application, according to a 45-degree alignment with the walls or curbs; the sidewalk to the row, with the stones lined up in parallel rows; the circular sidewalk; the hexagonal sidewalk; the artistic sidewalk, which is characterized by the application of stones with specific shapes and / or the contrast of colours; the Largo Mar; the segmented fan; the Florentine fan; and the peacock tail.
For a long time the drawings were made by amateurs with great skill, generally based on traditional motifs linked to the great achievement of the Portuguese – the Discoveries.
From the 1950s, some artists were invited to design motifs for the Portuguese sidewalk.
Nowadays the role of architects is fundamental in the design of reasons to apply to spaces in recovery, as in the old areas of Portuguese cities.
It is the masters themselves who create and develop new types of stone application depending on the taste and professional style.
In 1986, a Lisbon Calceteiro School was created by the Lisbon City Council with the sole purpose of training professionals, and teaching them the knowledge of old masters and thus ensuring the “survival” of the Portuguese sidewalk.