National Monument and World Heritage Site (UNESCO), an identity symbol of the city of Lisbon and Portugal in the world, is historically and artistically associated with the Jerónimos Monastery and the Portuguese Discoveries. Built between 1514 and 1519, on a basalt outcrop, some distance from the north bank of the river, it combines two distinct architectural models: the tall tower, similar to a keep, with a medieval appearance; and the bulwark, a modern military device. This hexagonal body – positioned at a low level and advanced in the river, equipped with embrasures – allowed low-level shooting. The Tower of Belém is, therefore, a valuable testimony that, at the time, the old neuroballistic warfare, of throwing, provided by the high and recessed tower, gave way to the pyroballistic warfare of heavy artillery and low-lying fire, guaranteed by the bulwark.
In addition to the structure of the building, it is the ornamental overload, the festive decoration in the Portuguese “Manueline” late-Gothic style, which denounces its construction during the reign of D. Manuel I (1495-1521). The obsessively present royal heraldry is mixed with various ornamental motifs such as, for example, ropes, knots and animals, with no shortage of elements of Moorish allusion. Noteworthy is the presence, on the south façade of the tall tower, of the extensive balcony, a loggia, designed to host the ostentatious court ceremony which would certainly intensify upon the arrival and departure of the vessels.
The construction of a fortress on the north bank of the Tagus, to defend the river, had been planned since the time of D. João II. However, it was during the reign of D. Manuel I that Francisco de Arruda, an architect experienced in defensive structures, designed and directed the construction work on the Tower dedicated to São Vicente, early on known as Torre de Belém.
In the same period and in the same territory, opposite Praia do Restelo, the Jerónimos Monastery was built – the large monastic house founded by D. Manuel I, handed over to the Order of Saint Jerome, whose works began in 1501-1502.
There are many written and visual sources that testify to the relationship between these two great undertakings. As an example, in the Chronica do Felicissimo Rei Dom Emanuel, 1566-1567, Damião de Góis writes:
“In front of this building, the King ordered the construction of the tower of S. Vicente, which is called Belém, founded in the water, to guard this Monastery, and the port of Lisbon, a building that although in itself is not large in quantity, however the His structure is magnificent. Which tower keeps watch by night and by day, so that no sail can pass without being seen, and obeys the salvos that are made from it with artillery.”
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