Located 30 km northwest of Lisbon, the Palace was built in 1711 on the initiative of King D. João V and conceived as a representation of the monarchy and the State. This impressive quadrangular building includes the Palaces of the King and Queen, the Basilica in Italian Baroque style, the Franciscan Convent and the Library with 36,000 volumes. The monumental ensemble also includes Jardim do Cerco in geometric composition and Tapada. The Real Edifício de Mafra is one of the most admirable works carried out by King João V, which illustrates the power and reach of the Portuguese Empire. João V adopted architectural and artistic models in the Italian Baroque style and commissioned works of art that make Mafra an exceptional example of this style of architecture.
Its construction work began in 1717 on the initiative of King D. João V, due to a promise he had made in the name of the descendants that he would obtain from Queen D. Ana Ana of Austria.
The building designed by the main architect of the kingdom, João Frederico Ludovice, occupies an area of approximately four hectares (37,790 m²). Built in abundant limestone in the region of Mafra, it consists of 1,200 rooms, more than 4,700 doors and windows, 156 staircases and 29 patios and foyers.
Due to real will, the initial project of a convent for 13 friars was successively extended to 40, 80 and finally 300 friars, a Basilica and a Royal Palace.
The monumental ensemble of Mafra, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, is an extraordinary example of Portuguese art and architecture and a truly magnificent work.
Since the choice of the architect (Johann Friedrich Ludwig, known as Ludovice, trained in Rome), the project has established itself as an international affirmation of the Portuguese reigning house. The monarch’s continued fascination with Rome led him to hire important artists for Mafra, who thus became one of the most relevant places in Italian Baroque outside Italy.
At the time of the consecration of the Basilica, on October 22, 1730, the king’s birthday, the ensemble was not yet completed, not all works of art had arrived, but the plan was long outlined: a Royal Palace endowed with two turrets that, functioning independently, were the chambers of the royal couple; a Basilica decorated with statues of the best Roman artists and with an unusual set of French and Italian vestments unparalleled in the country; two towers on the façade that house two chimes ordered to be built in Flanders and which constitute a unique bell heritage in the world; a Library consisting of works of great scientific interest and of the few that foresaw the incorporation of “prohibited books”, as well as a bibliographic collection from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Considered one of the most beautiful in the world, this library was born in the reign of D. João V, the king who privileged culture and knowledge.
The largest room in the Mafra convent is lined with more than 40,000 books, arranged and lined up in Rococo style shelves. Bindings in leather, engraved in gold. Numerous works were commissioned by D. João V, because the king wanted to concentrate on this palace, which was very special to him, which was best printed in the kingdom and abroad.
The 88-meter-long library and a cross-plant has a little bit of everything: works of medicine, philosophy, literature, law, grammars and dictionaries, encyclopedias, travel books. In the southernmost wing are the religious themes, and to the north, on the opposite side, are the profane of the pure sciences. Unique or very rare copies are handled with care, as is the case with the first edition of the Qur’an in 1543, the polyglot Bible of 1514 or even a first edition of “Os Lusíadas”.
The preservation of these ancient works, on the other hand, is in charge of an army of tiny bats that, during the night, hunt for insects that eat paper, ink and glue.
The Palace continued to perform the functions of Paço Real until the end of the monarchy, and it was in Mafra that D. Manuel II, the last king of Portugal, spent the night before embarking for exile. The Convent was extinguished in 1834 and, since then, has hosted several military units that constitute, in itself, another chapter in the history of this group, as they are linked to the great military clashes in which Portugal participated and to the very memory of the Portuguese army.
The life of Corte in the Mafra Palace at the time of D. João V was relatively scarce, since the King became seriously ill in 1742 and died in 1750.
His son D. José I maintained the habit of coming to Mafra, almost always to hunt in Tapada. But, since the 1755 earthquake he did not like to live in stone buildings, the entire Royal Family settled in a tent built next to the Palace.
In the reign of D. Maria I, the court’s visits to Mafra were related to the celebration of religious festivals or to the Queen’s taste for riding horses in Tapada, a habit she maintained until she became ill in 1792.
Originally decorated with Flemish tapestries and oriental rugs, the Palace will undergo a profound modification by the will of D. João VI, still Prince Regent, who orders a mural decoration campaign in several rooms.
Here the entire Court settled in 1806/1807, in the troubled time that preceded the French Invasions. The need to make the large spaces of the Palace more habitable also led to the division of some of the large spaces into smaller rooms, divided by wooden panels of Brazil “richly painted”.
The departure of the Royal Family to Brazil, on November 27, 1807, days before the arrival of the French troops in Lisbon, resulted in the impoverishment of much of the Palace filling, transported to the colony for the service of the Royal House and there having been left when the Court returned to Portugal in June 1821.
In December 1807, the French troops took up residence in the Palace and, a few months later, were replaced by a small fraction of the English army that remained here until March 1828.
After the troubled period of Liberal Struggles, in the reign of D. Maria II, the Court resumed the habit of returning to Mafra. Her husband, D. Fernando, a true pioneer in the defence of national heritage, carried out several recovery works at the Real Edifício.
The building has an imposing monumental presence, the result of its exceptional architectural project, particularly the central part, the Basilica, and a careful choice of materials and decorative elements, which provided it with an almost unique splendour in the Europe of its day: polychromatic marbles from different origins; the remarkable group of sculptures in the Church’s portico – the largest of its kind in the world, with 58 marble statues commissioned from the main Roman sculptors of their time; the two chimes, each with 48 bells, from Antwerp; the exclusive grouping of six organs, with its own repertoire, designed and built for the same space, between 1792 and 1807; the Parque de Caça Real, a vast, walled enclosure with a perimeter of 21 km, surrounding agricultural and forest land, which today is an important genetic reserve boasting a biogenetic diversity and variety of species, the result of the considerable amount of work that has been invested in its management.
In the palace, you can visit the pharmacy, with beautiful medicine jars and some surgical instruments, the hospital, with sixteen private cubicles from which patients could see and hear mass in the adjacent chapel, without leaving their beds. Upstairs, the palace’s sumptuous rooms extend the entire length of the western façade, with the king’s rooms at one end and the queen’s rooms at the other, 232 m apart, separated by a hallway that is the largest in Europe.
In the center, the imposing façade is enhanced by the towers of the basilica covered with a dome. The interior of the basilica is lined with marble and equipped with six organs from the early 19th century, with an exclusive repertoire that cannot be played anywhere else in the world. The basilica’s atrium is decorated with beautiful Italian sculptures. There was also the Mafra Sculpture School, created by D. José in 1754, there were many Portuguese and foreign artists who studied there under the guidance of the Italian sculptor Alessandro Giusti.
And if the art exhibited here is not enough, the palace of Mafra is also linked to a literary work by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, José Saramago. Memorial do convento, a work known internationally, where the writer crosses history, fiction and fantastico, with invented characters and historical figures with the scenario of the construction of the Convent of Mafra.