Lisbon’s decorative arts museum: A quirky Gem hidden in plain sight

In my short visit to Lisbon I intended to visit its Castle. But when i arrived I found queues of tourists running out into the street trying to get in.

I changed my mind but some 150 yards away I noticed a rather shabby building called the museum or museu das artes decorativas. On impulse I went inside.For a modest charge of ten euros I gained admission but was told I had to go on an English speaking guided tour that had just started.The view above is close to the museum.

Expecting another horde of tourists I found instead I was just one of three people -two Brits and one American including myself. It was almost like a private tour.

What I had stumbled across was a rather quirky museum run by a foundation over five creaking floors of an old palace. It contained a collection of Portuguese furniture and objects de art dating from medieval times to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. This had been gifted by a wealthy philanthropist and run by the Fundacao Ricardo du Espirito Santa Silva.

Now I know nothing about Portuguese furniture but the place is an eye opener on how the better off furnished their homes over the centuries.

The earliest furniture in the museum is in the heavy Baroque style but according to our guide contains a series of small beds.This was because the Portuguese at that time slept propped up because they believed to lie flat would mean they could die in their sleep.

The half tiled bedrooms reflected the strong Roman Catholic belief with many pictures of the Virgin Mary. Later the style of furniture became much lighter first influenced by Portugal’s relationship with China and a tradition of inlaid marquetry grew up which is still followed by students today.

Two extraordinary facts emerged from the tour. For those who think flat packed furniture is an invention by IKEA and that recycling is a new phenomenon think again.

Early Portuguese furniture could easily be dismantled – chair backs could be replaced with leather of different colours and one settee in the museum could be easily dismantled to become two arm chairs and a table.

And wood could be recycled in the 18th and 19th century. Sturdy wooden crates to transport valuable sugar from Brazil were reused to make furniture.

There is also a fascinating collection of. Small tables that can be converted to play backgammon and chess for family members to. Play during the evening.

There is a fascinating Portuguese website – use Google Translate to read it – with details about the foundation and the museum with pictures of the rooms. The link is www-fress.pt. Unfortunately the place looked as it had seen better days. The cafe was closed but the museum deserves to be better known.

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