Located in Mafra, a pleasant town around 28 km from the Capital town of Lisbon, the Palace of Mafra, also known as the Palace-Convent of Mafra, is a monumental Baroque and Neoclassical palace-monastery, which was initially intended to be a modest Franciscan monastery. However, the plan for a simple convent evolved into a lavish palace, when an abundant flow of gold and diamonds started to arrive in Lisbon from the Portuguese colony of Brazil, and King John V, the Magnanimous ordered to make it a sumptuous palace, along with a much enlarged friary. However, it was built as the consequence of a vow the king made in 1711, if he is blessed with an heir from his marriage to Maria Ana of Austria.
Nevertheless, the huge complex of the Palace of Mafra, the historic 18th-century landmark that defines the town, was classified as a National Monument in 1910 and was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.
Construction of the palace complex, designed by Johann Friedrich Ludwig, started with the ceremonial laying of the first stone on 17 November 1717 in the presence of the king, his entire court, and the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, and was completely concluded in 1755. Made of limestone, marble, and Lioz stone, the huge palace, equipped with more than 1200 rooms, 5000 doors and windows, 156 staircases, 29 inner yards, and courtyards, is a brilliant example of Baroque magnificence.
Apart from the royal palace, the complete building also consists of a friary capable of sheltering 330 friars and a huge library of 40,000 books and is embellished with marble, exotic woods, and countless artworks. Although the construction of the building continued until 1755, the basilica, consecrated and dedicated to our Lady and St. Anthony, was inaugurated, along with the convent, much before that, on the day of the King's 41st birthday on 22 October 1730.
The structure of the complete building is symmetrical on a central axis with the basilica flanked by two tall towers adorned with bulbous domes and the main monastery is located behind the main façade. The 722 feet (220 m) long imposing façade, built of local limestone, and facing the town of Mafra, is equipped with a balcony at its centre, resembling the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but intended for the king as a symbol of his power.
The two 223 feet (68 m) tall church towers, equipped with their carillons containing a total of 92 church bells, are connected by two rows of Corinthian columns. While the top row is decorated with the statues of St. Dominic and St. Francis, sculptured from Carrara marble and standing in a niche on each side of the balcony, the lower row contains the statues of St Clara and St. Elisabeth of Hungary.
The spacious royal apartments are located on the second floor of the huge palace. While the north turret was occupied by the apartments of the king, the queen occupied the south turret. The turrets are linked by a palatial corridor of around 660 feet (200 m), and the imminent arrival of the king in her apartment was announced by the sound of a trumpet to alarm the queen. The King’s bedroom contains a grand, French-made mahogany gondola bed with matching side tables. Apart from the 19th-century Portuguese scant silverware that includes a single bowl and perfuming pan, there is also a portrait of King John VI, looking down forlornly over a chest of drawers and a dressing mirror, crafted in mahogany. However, perhaps one of the most historic rooms in the palace is the Queen’s bedroom, in which the last Portuguese monarch Manuel II slept his last night in the palace before he was exiled in England on the 5th of October 1910. Besides a solid 19th-century bed, the room also has a late 18th-century rosewood dressing table and a Lignum Vitae chest-of-drawers.
The dazzling Throne Room with its striking wall frescoes created by Domingos Sequeira, depicting the Royal Virtues of Perfection, Kindness, Tranquility, Generosity, Knowledge, Conscience, Concordance, and Constancy, was used for royal audiences. Although sparsely furnished, save for an 18th-century Lignum Vitae carved armchair, upholstered in red velvet, and several gilded wall tables, the ceiling of the Throne Room is exquisitely painted by Cyrillo Volkmar Machado.
However, the Hall of Destiny is equally enriched with its astonishing ceiling painting, depicting an allegory to Lusitania, with the country surrounded by all the kings of Portugal until the end of the 18th-century, and Alonso Henriques, the nation’s first king, clutching the book of destiny. The Great Hall, housed in the North Tower, is decorated with four enormous canvases, painted in the early 1730s, themed around St. Paul, which has created a peaceful, pious, and air of sobriety in the room, once used as a part of the king’s private apartments. Later, after the death of King Ferdinand in 1885, it was converted to host the visiting dignitaries.
Among all the other state rooms, the Music room, named after its centerpiece grand piano made by Joseph Kirkman of London in the 19th-century, is probably the most decorative and harmonious, complete with a suite of chairs and chaise lounge upholsters in a mustard hue. The Trophy Room or Salad a Caca, located in the extensive hunting grounds of the palace, was created to showcase a collection of about one hundred sets of mounted deer antlers and several heads of boars. Even its furniture and the chandeliers, were made from antlers and upholstered in deerskin. Apart from that, one room is dedicated to the Age of Discovery, one to the Peninsular War, and another to the Destiny of the Nation. The other rooms include the Guard Room, Benediction Room, and the King’s Gallery.
The basilica contained in the Royal Building of Mafra is built in the form of a Latin cross. While its vestibule contains a group of fourteen large sculptures representing the patron saints of several monastic orders, sculptured in Carrara marble, the interior exhibits abundant use of local rose-coloured marble, intermingled with white marble in various patterns. The fluted Corinthian semi-columns standing between the side chapels support the barrel vault of the basilica. All the six pipe organs of the basilica were made by António Xavier Machado and Joaquim António Peres Fontanes between 1792 and 1807, and were originally conceived to play together.
However, the 288.71 feet (88 m) long, 31 feet (9.5 m) wide, and 42.65 feet (13 m) high Rococo library, situated at the back of the second floor of the palace building, and containing a priceless collection of around 40,000 books in gold embossed leather bindings, is undoubtedly the highlight of the Mafra Palace. Its precious collection includes the Nuremberg Chronicle dated 1493, a copy of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius dated 1595, considered to be the first true modern atlas, and a trilingual copy of the Bible from 1514. A copy of the first edition of Os Lusiadas by the Portuguese poet Camões, printed in 1572, is regarded as a national treasure.
Ironically, the Palace of Mafra was hardly occupied by the royalty, who considered the rooms too gloomy. Even King John V and his queen spent little time in the palace. However, it was popular for some members of the royal family, who enjoyed hunting in the nearby Tapada de Mafra game preserve. King John VI spent a whole year in the palace in 1807 and partially renovated the building. But just before the French invasion of Portugal in 1807, he fled to Brazil, along with his family, taking with them some of the best pieces of art and furniture of the building. The last Portuguese monarch Manuel II, who slept his last night in the palace before he left it forever on 5 October 1910, following the proclamation of the Republic, for the nearby coastal village of Ericeira on his way to exile in England, where he spent the rest of his life.
The Palace of Mafra was declared a national monument in 1907, and at present, it is under the care of the Portuguese Institute of Architectonic Patrimony.