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All About Portugal | April 20, 2014

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Mafra National Palace - All About Portugal

Mafra National Palace
Clara Campos

The impressive Mafra National Palace from the 18th century is known by its Basilica with the carilons as well as the magnificent Library

Mafra National Palace (Palácio Nacional de Mafra) raises majestic over Mafra and it seems like a giant looking down the small town at its feet.

The monument is one of the most impressive examples of the Baroque style, showing also some of the Italianized Neoclassical traces. However its grandeur comes from the fact that Mafra National Palace, one of the biggest buildings constructed in Europe on the 18th century, is more than just a palace. To be accurate it is a complex that houses a monastery with a basilica as well. In fact it rivals with the Spanish Escorial and the Pope’s official residence.

Mafra National Palace was built under the orders of king John V, who had made the promise to build a convent if the Queen Anne of Austria, his wife, gave him descendants. Therefore, when Princess Barbara of Bragança was born, the construction of the monument started on November 17, 1717, with a ceremony attended by the King and his court, as well as the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon.

Mafra National Palace, basilica

Photo by MulderMedia

At first the monument was intended to be much smaller. In fact, the project was designed to be a modest convent of 13 Capuchin friars. However, the gold from Brazil began to arrive in abundance and the King inebriated with all that wealth, changed his mind and decided to have erected a sumptuous palace along with an enlarged monastery. So, thanks to the gold from Brazil the design was changed and the Palace was built symmetrically from a central axis, where the basilica is to be found, and it stretches lengthwise through the main façade ending in two identical towers.

Behind the main façade are the convent infrastructures that where abandoned by the Franciscans after the dissolution of the religious orders commanded by Queen Mary II in 1834.

Mafra National Palace interior

Photo by MulderMedia

Since 1849, the monastery area of the building is occupied by the militaries. The construction lasted for 13 years under the orientation of Johann Friedrich Ludwig, a German called João Frederico Ludovice by the Portuguese. Nevertheless, other architects intervened on the construction process, namely Carlos Baptista Garbo, Custódio Vieira, Manuel da Maia and even the son of Ludwig, António.

To build a complex of 37,79m2, with a 220 meters long façade, more than 4,700 doors and windows, about 1,200 rooms and 156 stairways is an amazing achievement. It was only possible due to an unprecedented logistic that included a daily huge army of workers who reached the 45,000 men by the final phase of the project.

To maintain peace and order on the construction site where assigned 7,000 soldiers. The basilica, dedicated to Our Lady and to Saint Anthony, patron of Lisbon, and the convent were inaugurated on October 22nd, 1730, the King’s birthday. Nevertheless works went on until 1755 when the working force had to be transferred to the recovery of Lisbon after the Great Earthquake that destroyed a large part of the city.

The palace served mostly as a recreation accommodation for the royal court, whose members enjoyed hunting in the nearby Tapada de Mafra. King John VI, who lived in the palace for a year, ordered a partial renovation of the building, enriching it with sumptuous works of art of several renowned artists. Yet, following the French invasions, the Royal Family fled to Brazil taking with it some of the best art and furniture pieces. Therefore, many of the rooms were later on redecorated in the original style.

The Palace was occupied by the French General Junot until he was driven out by Wellington and his men. This monument is a landmark of the transition into a Republican regime thus it was from here that Manuel II, the last Portuguese King, departure on October 5th 1910 to Ericeira on his way to the exile. In 1907 Mafra National Palace was declared a national monument.

The highlights of Mafra National Palace

The magnificent pieces of art and furniture exhibited on the Palace coming from all over the world and designed by famed artists, as well as its architectural sumptuous amaze the visitors. In fact, the distance between the King and Queen Chambers was such that when the King wanted to pay her a visit, his departure was announced by the sound of a hornet. Nevertheless, it is the richly decorated Basilica that enraptures the tourists, especially due to the six historical organs and two carillons, composed of 92 bells, founded in Antwerp.

It is said that the bell-founders were so impressed by the size of the task that asked to be paid in advance. To assure them, the King doubled the amount offered for the work. The Mafra carillons are the world’s largest historical collection of this type. Sometimes concerts are held and listing to the music coming from these unique instruments is a heavenly experience no one should miss.

The magnificent library is another ex libris of the monument. Richly decorated under the Rococo style is 88 meters long, 9.5 meters wide and 13 meters high. It houses over 35,000 leather-bound books, which contain a huge part of the western knowledge acquired between the 14th and 19th centuries. Some of these books are priceless bibliographical pieces such as incunabula, a book that was printed in Europe before 1501. This treasure is not only preserved by natural techniques of conservation that avoid humidity, but also by a few bats that inhabit the library and eat all the insects that might destroy this unique books collection.
Mafra National Palace Library

Photo by Xavi Llunell

The legends of Mafra National Palace

As any other self-respecting monument, Mafra National Palace has its own legends. In my opinion, the most bizarre states that there are giant rats living in the palace and that by night these huge animals come outside to hunt cats, dogs and even people. Probably this tale is due to the large sewer system of the palace.

Another less terrifying legend speaks of a secret tunnel, linking Mafra to Ericeira. Some say that King Manuel II used it to avoid exile and remained in the country.

Important info

Opening hours:

10 am – 5:30 pm (last admission: 4.30 pm)

Closed on Tuesdays and in the following Holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, May Day, Ascension Day and Christmas Day.

Basilica: Everyday, 10:00 – 13:00 and 14:00 – 17:00

Library (for readers): – Everyday, 10:00 – 12:30 and 14:00 – 17:00

Entry tickets: € 6
Estimated Visit Time:

1,5 hour (complete tour)

Where is Mafra National Palace?

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Mafra National Palace 38.944311, -9.332086 Mafra National PalaceThe impressive Mafra National Palace from the 18th century is known by its Basilica with the carilons as well as the magnificent Library

Further information on Mafra National Palace

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