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Belém Tower

Belém Tower (in Portuguese Torre de Belém, pronounced [ˈtoʁ(ɨ) dɨ bɨˈlɐ̃ȷ̃]) or the Tower of St Vincent is a fortified tower located in the Belém district of Lisbon, Portugal. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery) because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. The tower was commissioned by King John II to be both part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus River and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

The tower was built in the early 16th century and is a prominent example of the Portuguese Manueline style, but it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles. The structure was built from lioz limestone and is composed of a bastion and the 30 meter (100 foot), four story tower. It has incorrectly been stated that the tower was built in the middle of the Tagus and now sits near the shore because the river was redirected after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In fact, the tower was built on a small island in the Tagus River near the Lisbon shore.


In the late 15th century, King John II designed a defense system for the mouth of the Tagus River by building the Fortress of Cascais and the Fortress of São Sebastião of Caparica on the south side of the river. These fortresses did not completely cover the mouth of the river and further protection was required. King John II planned the tower to supplement the defense system and King Manuel I finished the construction of the tower after the death of King John II. Before the completion of the tower, the Grand Nau (Great Ship), a heavily armed, 1000 tonne (1100 ton) ship was used to supplement the defense. The construction of the tower completed the defense system and was finished in the last five years of Manuel's reign.

The tower was constructed between 1515 and 1521 by the military architect, Francisco de Arruda. Diogo de Boitaca, the first architect of the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, also participated in decorating the building. The tower was dedicated to the patron saint of Lisbon, St Vincent, and commemorated the expedition of Vasco de Gama.

Various guides claim the tower was built in the middle of the Tagus River and now sits near the shore after the 1755 earthquake redirected the river. But other references, including both the Portuguese Ministry of Culture and Institute of Architectural Heritage, state that originally the tower stood on a little island near the bank of the Tagus, opposite Restelo beach. As the shoreline progressively moved southward over the years, the tower is now nearly on the riverbank itself.

The tower was used as a fortress until 1580, when Lisbon was invaded by Spanish troops in the course of a struggle for the Portuguese throne. During subsequent centuries, the tower was mainly used as a political prison. King Miguel I (1828–34) used the damp dungeon to retain his liberal opponents. It has also been used as a custom house for ships entering Lisbon. The tower received military upgrades in 1589 and 1809–14.

In 1845, Queen Maria II restored the Belém Tower at the urging of romantic writer Almeida Garrett and the persuasion of the war minister, the Duke of Tercira.[9] During the renovation, many neo-Manueline decorative elements were added to the building, including the battlements, the rampart walk and the niche of the Virgin. In 1907 it was declared a national monument.

The military quarters on the battlements were removed in 1940 when the Ministry of Finance took control of the tower. At that time an inner cloister was built. In 1983, an artificial lake was built around the tower to permanently surround it with water and an acrylic dome was built over the cloister. In that year it was named, together with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The two were named a joint UNESCO site because they are both considered masterpieces of the Manueline architectural style that represents the Portugal's era of exploration and its maritime discoveries that were influential to the modern world. The two specific UNESCO criteria these monuments meet are that they first are outstanding examples of an influential culture or civilization (the Portuguese exploratory age and maritime discoveries), and second, they are examples of a type of building or architectural style (Manueline) that illustrates a significant state in human history (the exploratory age).

The tower and bastion received maintenance and restoration from February 1997 to January 1998. These restoration works included reinforcing the structure, treating the mortar joints and structural cleaning. Structural works included the reinforcement of the south balcony supports with stainless steel rods and epoxy resin. The same was also carried out for fixing the statues of Saint Vincent and the Archangel Saint Michael.The tower was given a Europa Nostra award in 1999.

Tower layout

The Belém Tower was built from lioz limestone, a light colored, rare stone that is local to the Lisbon area. The building is divided into two parts: the bastion and the four story tower, located on the north side of the bastion.

The bastion is shaped like an irregular hexagon. It is composed of the bulwark, which sits just above the water and housed the cannons in the 16-gun emplacement in the walls. The open center above the casemate made it easier to dispel the cannon smoke. Below the bulwark are the storerooms, which were later used as prisons. Above the bulwark is a terrace with six turrets. The bastion platform could also be used for light-caliber guns. This was the first Portuguese fortification with a two-level gun emplacement and it marks a new development in military architecture. Later a statue of the Virgin was constructed on the terrace.

The tower is about 12 meters (40 feet) square and about 30 meters (100 feet) tall. The first floor is at the same level as the bulwark terrace and is called the Governor's room. The second floor is the King's room; the third, the Audience room; and the fourth, the chapel. Narrow spiral staircases connect the floors. The King's room has a loggia that overlooks the river. The audience room has two light windows on each of three sides and round-headed windows on south side. On the external wall there is a large coat of arms between the windows. There is a terrace above the chapel that offers views of the surrounding landscape.


The 16th century tower is considered one of the main works of the Portuguese late gothic, Manueline style. This is especially apparent in its elaborate rib vaulting, crosses of the Order of Christ, armillary spheres and twisted rope. Gothic rib vaulting is evident in the casemate of the bastion, the rooms of the tower and the cupolas of the watchtowers on the bastion terrace. King Manuel I was a member of the Order of Christ and the Manueline cross of the Order of Christ is repeated numerous times on the parapets. These were a symbol of Manuel's military strength as the knights of the Order of Christ contributed to numerous military conquests in that era.

The Manueline armillary spheres appear at the tower's entrance and symbolize Portugal's nautical explorations. The armillary sphere was King Manuel I's personal banner to represent the Portuguese discoveries during his rule. The decorative carved, twisted rope and elegant knots also point to Portugal's nautical history.

While the tower is prominently Manueline, it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles. The tower was built by the military architect Francisco de Arruda, who had already built several fortresses in Portuguese territories in Morocco. The influence of Moorish architecture is manifest in the delicate decorations, the arched windows, the balconies, and the ribbed cupolas of the watchtowers. The upper corners of the tower walls have statues of St Vincent and St Michael, as well as many windows with arches. A Renaissance-styled covered loggia runs the full length of the south side of the first floor of the tower. The loggia has seven arches and rests on large corbels. Its sloped roof ends in twisted rope. Some of the decoration dates from the renovation of the 1840s and is neo-Manueline, like the decoration of the small cloister of the bastion.

The bastion platform is on the south, and most ornate, side of the tower. The corners of this platform have turrets (guerites) topped by Moorish-looking cupolas. The base of the turrets have images of beasts, including a rhinoceros. This rhinoceros is considered to be the first sculpture of such an animal in Western European art and probably depicts the rhinoceros that Manuel I sent to Pope Leo X in 1515. A richly carved niche with a Manueline baldachin sits on the platform in front of the river. A statue of the virgin of Belém (also called Our Lady of Good Success, Our Lady of the Grapes and the Virgin of Safe Homecoming) stands in this niche. She is holding a child in her right hand and a bunch of grapes in her left.

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