As cores de Lisboa – The colors of Lisbon

A chicklit tearjerker calls Lisbon The White City. It’s authors were blind: Lisbon’s traditional colors are pale but extraordinarily varied. They are also of a kind: they share a certain earthy (say the Portuguese), leaden (a Pole would say) quality, a certain note of gentle, retiring understatement. (No – phulease – NOT sadness). What gives the colors of Lisbon their family resemblance? Poets say: light: in Lisbon’s light a gray note gives color depth. There is something to the claim: the light of Lisbon is indeed very special (see Lawrence Weschler’s essay on Light in LA to understand how and why the visible light can have special characteristics at a particular geographical location).

And, certainly, in Lisbon’s light brighter, more lively colors do jerk the eye uncomfortably. Thus, the addition of the dull note may have been an aesthetic decision. A chemist (like me) might suggest the dull note may rather be due to a paint additive (such as an emulsifying agent or a fixer) used in local paint simply because that is what is available locally. Whatever the reason, the colors of Lisbon are instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time at all looking at them. And so are the new colors. The economic crisis has meant that imported, German paint is cheaper; anti-crisis measures have meant a lot of repainting; as a result one begins to see in Lisbon buildings painted in wrong colors, bright, chearful, Disneylandesque, candied, plasticky reds, peaches, and oranges. The city begins to look like what the mass tourist wants to see, his vision of happy go lucky South. Before the whole city starts looking like a garish Florida suburb, I wanted to record the colors of Lisbon. For posterity. My bit for the archives of history.

The traditional colors of Lisbon come basically in three groups: blush (NOT pink), straw (NOT yellow) and linen (NOT gray).

The destruction of Lisbon

A German diver in Palawan told me in 1993 that tourism was like cancer:  “it destroys everything in its path”.  As we talked, about 50 meters away, workers were installing the empteenth stilted cottage on the seashore that season; like all the others, this cottage, too, lacked any sort of arrangement for sewage disposal.

Tourism certainly destroyed every sea-side location where I have lived in the last two decades, turning each from a quaint little town where humble life rolled on leisurely into an unlivable monstrosity, a shopping mall on the sea, a busy belching traffic nightmare in season, a dead eyesore off. For 15 years, between 1995 and 2010 my life was a cat-and-mouse chase, a dog-fight, a running battle — with me trying to find an unspoiled place to live in and tourism following within a few years; first a cottage at a time, but eventually the full hog, with full blown articles in the press world-over that X was now The Place To Go.

Eventually, I threw in the towel on sea-side towns and decided to duck the wave by going in the opposite direction, into the city.

But if you think that tourism only destroys beaches in third world countries and we in the first world are safe, think again. 

My new city — an European Capital — has now been officially made The New Place To Go To, a phenomenon stoked by fake advertisements paid for the by government (the adverts feature doctored photos of Lisbon making it look more Paris). (A former ad executive, I never cease to wonder how effective advertising is, how it works, how people trust it.  Don’t they know TV lies?  Do they know anything?)

Yesterday I walked down Rua Augusta to appraise the season’s damage.  It exceeded my worst fears.  What was once a traditional premium shopping street, and, in recent years, due to crisis, became somewhat romantically down-at-heel, has been completely transformed, in a mere three months, into a tourist drag.  Gone are jewelers selling Portuguese hand-crafted jewelry, gone are leather-goods shops selling Portuguese shoes and handbags, gone are Portuguese eateries serving stufado and cafetarias serving salgados and afternoon tea.  They have all been replaced by ice-cream McParlors and frozen pizza places and outdoor tables serving industrial snacks and canned drinks and playing vaguely ethnic world music:  all according to the formula which works world over:  familiar (the hell with new and exotic, who ever said tourism was about discovering or learning?), low price but high margin (a 3 euro key-chain offers a 300% markup for the vendor).

Rua Augusta now looks the way the main street of San Giminiano already looked in 2005 – lined up and down both sides of it with tourist-pandering junk-outlets.  Back in 2005 I walked up that main drag because I had to — some paintings I had to see were in a church at the top of it; but to my amazement I watched people sit in those sidewalk cafes of that street, taking in “the atmosphere”.

Atmosphere?  What atmosphere?  You can get the same “atmosphere” at your local mall.  Why fly six thousand miles to get the same on another continent?

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Not my favorite picture at Lisbon’s Museu de Arte Antiga, but certainly her greatest crowd-pleaser. It took a rare combo of consideration and pushiness to photograph this thing.

This topic consists of three posts:

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Left Panel

Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Right Panel
Bosch — Temptation of Saint Anthony, Center Panel


Some 15th and 16th century Portuguese colored tiles (azulejo)

From a temporary show at the Museu de Azulejo, Lisbon.

Gianbattista Tiepolo – Flight to Egypt – Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

My favorite painting at Museu de Arte Antiga is this — as it has to be every Venetian’s: the Holy Family is seen flying to Egypt as any Ventian would: by boat.

Ca. 1765-1770, oil on wood, abou 60 cm high by 30 cm wide.

Unknown Netherlandish (Flemish) Master – Triptych of the Holy Family with Angels, Saint Barbara and Saint Cathrine – Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Not the museum’s most famous painting, but very possibly her best.
Possibly around 1520-25, oil on oak panel, previously at Palacio des Necessidades.
It is tiny:  perhaps 45 cm high by 80 cm wide (all three panels — the central panel is no more than 35 cm wide).

Detail of a table center-piece, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

An 18th century table center-piece. The lighting makes it impossible to photograph the whole thing — which is the size of two 12-year-old boys; but it is possible to photograph some details of it, such as this exquisite dog, about a foot long.

Dom Jose I service set, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Clearly, like all Portuguese, Dom Jose I liked to eat. This is why he commissioned François-Thomas Germain (1726–1791), the son of Thomas Germain, a French silversmith and heir to the title of royal silversmith and sculptor to the King of France, to make this little set for him. The set suggests his majesty had small hands, a tiny mouth, and ate sparingly — at least at breakfast.

Thankfully, in the name of social justice, the state has arrested these iniquities of inequality and locked them behind glass, where they will never again be stroked by a loving hand or touched by worshipful lips.

One day, no doubt, we will attain such perfection of justice that we will do the same to all beautiful women as well.

Lucas van Valckenborch (1535-1597) at Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Boucher, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Like the title say.

Carpet, Iranian, XVI c, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

An amazingly tightly executed work with beautifully drawn animals, fruit trees, and abstract flowers, very well preserved colors; left and right edges missing, some vertical wear through the center. One of the most impressive carpets I have ever seen — and now it can be photographed!

Heracles slaying the centaurs, Flemish Tapestry, XVI c, Brussels, Museu de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

The disturbingly hydrocephalous features of the heroes is perhaps part of the design: this particular tapestry may have been part of a series (labors?) and destined for a higher section of the wall — in which case, viewed at a sharp angle from below, body proportions would look “right”.

The most striking feature of the piece to me are the fruit-and-flower borders, exquisitely drawn, superbly woven and retaining 500 years later incredible freshness of colors. It is one of the main reasons why I keep going back to the museum.