ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 05

The Long Journey of The Royal Library

Author | Autor: Lilia Schwarcz With Paulo Cesar de Azevedo and Angela Marques da Costa

Translated by Brian Gould

The earthquake, or “The evil is in the earth”

You mistaken philosophers who cry All is well,
Come hither, contemplate these frightful ruins, (…)
You become more human, and weep as we do.
(Voltaire, The Lisbon Disaster, 1756)

It was All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755. The morning looked promising: the sky
was clear, the temperature stood at a pleasant 17.5° C (63.5° F) and the air was
warm—there was no indication of the impending catastrophe. On the contrary,
the day seemed fit for the care of souls and the crowded churches rang their
bells which resounded throughout the four corners of Lisbon, summoning the faithful
to prayer. Everything suggested peace and quiet—the orchestration of prayers,
the clouds of incense with its characteristic smell, the churchgoers in their Sunday
best and the friendly greetings exchanged between neighbours. All these things
made that November 1 a holy day indeed, perfectly suited for exalting the glory of
God in that city so given to the display of religion.
For this very reason, the first signs of alarm sounded like a warning from heaven,
a sign that an evil omen had come to stay. Eyewitnesses say that what followed
was swift and deadly: a terrifying underground thunder, a dull growl rising from the
depths. Like a herd of elephants, the tremors brought down everything in their path:
walls shook and tumbled, their fragility suddenly made plain, images shook, people
fled in panic, causing growing numbers of victims to be trampled underfoot and
crushed to death. The torments of the day, however, were only beginning. After three
consecutive tremors, each lasting a few minutes, a devastating fire broke out and
destroyed what remained of the city: it consumed buildings, melted down fortunes,
and killed those trapped within their homes. The flames were responsible for most
of the material damage. It is said that after the fire only prayers and groaning could
be heard in the streets, like a single great cry for mercy. Whether divine punishment
or a sign from heaven, this was a message that was beyond the comprehension of
these superstitious people who believed in omens and the supernatural.
Statements of the exact time vary from one report to another, reflecting
differing degrees of emotional upset. What does not vary is the description of the
tragedy: buildings destroyed, corpses in the streets and people wandering about
searching for missing relatives or fleeing in panic. But the series of horrors continued.
After the tremors, while the fire was still raging, the waters of the Tagus quickly rose
some twenty to thirty feet. About an hour after the first tremor, some survivors, still
dazed, looked at the harbour and saw that the waters seemed to be emptying into
the Atlantic: it was in fact a reflux caused by the earthquake that had split open
the ocean floor. According to witnesses, the harbour area was drained almost dry,
exposing the muddy riverbed. Nobody can state with certainty what happened; it is
however known that in a matter of minutes the Tagus rose to an unbelievable height.
Thus anyone attempting to flee from the fire by jumping into the river fared no better,
since the waters were in such turmoil that they brought back boats, wreckage and,
among it, lifeless bodies.
The result of this sequence of disasters was that, soon afterwards, there was
hardly anything left of the city but rubble. Instead of the peaceful daily routine of
Lisbon life, panic became the companion of every hour—brawls, looting and all kinds
of violence broke out in the streets, disorder gripped the city and chaos reigned.
So many and so sudden were the deaths that their number has never been known
for certain. Reports vary in their estimates, some more optimistic than others, and
several reveal the failure of the Portuguese government to assess correctly the
number of dead and also the number of survivors. The Papal nuncio estimated the
number of dead at forty thousand, others spoke of seventy or ninety thousand; the
future Marquis of Pombal slashed the figure to six or eight thousand. Letters written
soon after the event mention figures ranging from seventy to eighty-five thousand
dead; the captain of a Swedish ship, anchored nearby, went so far as to venture
the figure of ninety thousand deaths. All that is known for certain is that, out of a
population estimated by the historian José França at a quarter of a million, at least
fifteen to twenty thousand must have been killed.
The poor suffered most since they were at early Mass, as was the custom on
major saints’ days. If the number of dead was great, it could have been even greater
because, fortunately for some, it was not yet ten o’clock in the morning, the time
of the main Mass at Lisbon parish churches. For this reason, a large part of the
nobility survived, apart from considerable numbers of the clergy, because “people
of distinction” used to go to Mass no earlier than eleven o’clock in the morning.
Good fortune of another kind meant that many vassals escaped the disaster: the
Portuguese climate had led many subjects to prolong their stay in the countryside,
in a “perpetual springtime”.
Almost every member of the Royal family survived, since, the weather being
good, the King and Queen had prolonged their stay at their summer palace located
at Belém, west of Lisbon, 11 km away from their main palace, the Paço da Ribeira.
It was the traditional “luck of kings”. One anonymous observer summed up the
situation in these words: “There may never have been a happier misfortune since the
creation of the world.”
The extent of the catastrophe and its repercussions were by no means
restricted to the place in which it occurred: after all, no such disaster had ever struck
a city the size of Lisbon. For that very reason it gave rise to a controversy in which
widely differing views were expressed. On the one hand, rationalistic explanations
attributed the catastrophe to natural causes: they were to be found in the whims
of nature. On the other hand, interpretations gained strength that dredged up local
superstitions and saw the tragedy through the prism of mystical beliefs.
In Portugal, the time seemed ripe for prophecies of all kinds, especially for a
people who believed in fortune-telling and omens. The earthquake was seized on
by the adherents of Sebastianism and triggered a spate of messianic prophecies,
so that it came to be seen as an event foretold: yet another misfortune listed in the
litany of disasters so vivid in the popular religious imagination.
It was not only in Portugal that the phenomenon spread. Elsewhere, too, the
tragedy seemed to strike a chord in the imagination of contemporaries, whose
confident belief in a benign God had likewise been shaken by the tragedy. A great
many books were published on the subject in countries such as Germany, Holland,
England, Italy, Spain, and France. Goethe, who in 1755 was only six years old, still
recalled the earthquake at the age of 60, when he wrote in his memoirs: “Never
has the demon of terror spread so much panic across the earth, so forcefully and
so quickly.”. “On November 1, 1755,” Goethe wrote in Dichtung und Wahrheit, “the
Lisbon earthquake brought great fear into a world that had grown accustomed to
peace and quiet.”
The Lisbon catastrophe sharpened debate on the question of optimism, apart
from prompting doubts as to the existence of God and His moral strength as the
redeemer of the universe. While some thinkers insisted on blaming the victims for
all their misfortunes, others, such as Voltaire, rejected such dogmas, arguing that
“the evil is in the earth”. Voltaire, who had been in the habit of sneering at Portugal
as a land of absurd catastrophes and sunk in superstition, now poured sarcasm on
the situation, writing in Candide: “The Portuguese authorities could think of nothing
finer than giving the people a splendid auto-da-fé.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, seized the moment to go back to the premise of a
benevolent God. In Rousseau’s interpretation, this assertion was to be understood as
a law that could not be invalidated even by a natural force that caused the destruction
of tens of thousands of human beings. For a start, asked the young philosopher, “why
were all those people crowded in Lisbon?” Thus, nature being good, no natural event
could be wholly evil. A great many writers around the world turned to the subject,
which was also depicted in numerous prints that gained worldwide popularity—after
all, a great tragedy can be relied on to spark human curiosity.
Quite different, however, was the situation in Portugal, particularly in view of
the enormous material losses. From this point of view, such discussions were of
little use. Many buildings, documents and valuable works of art had disappeared,
consumed by the fire that had raged for six days in the heart of the city of Lisbon,
precisely in the district with the greatest concentration of mansions and public
buildings. It was said that about half the houses had been ruined along with public
buildings, churches, convents, embassies, the stately homes of the nobility and the
royal palace itself. The latter’s whole monumental complex—comprising the palace
built in the 16th century and enlarged under King John V (1706-1750); the Opera
House, inaugurated only shortly before the earthquake; and the royal chapel, first
built under Manuel I (1495-1521) and enlarged by subsequent monarchs up until King
Joseph—was irremediably lost. Furthermore, it has been calculated that a third of
the city was razed to the ground, not only by the tremors of the earthquake, but also
by the ensuing fire and floods.
The earthquake had also brought down a number of palaces. It is impossible to
put any precise figure on the amount of the damage, partly because the discovery
of gold mines in Brazil had altered local standards; every palace contained its own
private treasures, in panels and tapestries as well as in other valuables. Furthermore,
the Lisbon court was fairly rich in precious stones, largely brought over from Brazil.
However, all this wealth was of no help in warding off disaster: it was sarcastically
said that the Queen and the Princesses were left with no other diamonds than the
ones they had been wearing at the time.
Regardless of the details, it is certain that the sum of the losses was at the very
least staggering: two-thirds of all streets were left uninhabitable, while only three
thousand houses survived the fire out of the twenty thousand then in existence. Not
one of the six hospitals survived the fire, and all the prisons perished, as did the Palace
of the Inquisition and the thirty-three palaces belonging to the kingdom’s leading
families. The royal palace itself lay in ruins and all its valuable contents had been lost.
Nothing could have caused greater harm to the internal image of the kingdom: the
destruction of the capital city and the death of a large part of the population had
come on top of a previous litany of calamities. So many negative factors and the ruin
of the court only further depressed the already low morale of the nation, awakening
nostalgia for the age of the great discoveries and abundant gold.
The loss of those monuments that were a reminder of past glories dealt a
severe blow to the city. But some buildings were more sorely regretted than others:
one of them was the Royal Library housed in the Paço da Ribeira. The apple of the
Portuguese monarchy’s eye, this library contained seventy thousand carefully kept
volumes, including rare works, select documents, codices, incunabula, engravings,
musical scores, and maps. The Royal Library held everything that it could be
expected to possess as the custodian of the Empire’s storehouse of knowledge.
And in Portugal’s case, the loss was no less damaging, since the Royal Library
formed part of the kingdom’s heritage and was a symbol of the state. Painstakingly
built up over many reigns, reflecting the vicissitudes and tastes of different rulers, the
library expressed the importance that the Portuguese kings attached, if not to books
themselves, at least to the political and institutional prestige that the ownership of
such a collection conferred upon them. Some kings had books bought for them
in distant lands; others ordered their ambassadors to ferret out choice works; and
yet others gave the order for whole collections to be acquired and shipped to
Lisbon. Over the centuries, the Royal Library had come to embody national pride
in scholarship and learning, and was cherished by successive kings for whom the
status of Portugal as a minor empire cut off from the rest of Europe was galling.
In fact, the royal tradition of the “Palace book collection” dated back to John
II (1477-1495), who had brought together in one place the libraries of the first two
kings of the House of Aviz: John I (1385-1433) and Duarte (1433-1438). But it was
under John V (1706-1750) that the Royal Library grew to monumental proportions,
matching the aspirations of this king who sought to use the political stage to build
an absolute monarchy on a spectacular scale. And to carry out such a major project,
no effort was spared: foreign booksellers, diplomatic agents, celebrated academics
were all roped in to cater to the increasingly ambitious and insatiable royal demands.
Whole libraries were purchased abroad, including private collections and precious
rarities, which were hailed as trophies.
Chroniclers of the period speak of the importance that the king attached to this
collection of books: his library was as valuable to him, he said, as the gold shipped from
Brazil. Quite apart from the wealth of books and manuscripts, covering many fields of
knowledge—from religion and the classics to the Portuguese historians—there were
valuable collections of prints and drawings from the European schools. These were
mounted on specially prepared leaves, which were then gathered in volumes and
bound in red morocco, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms in gold leaf.
Indeed, by the 1750s, the Royal Library had come to be regarded as an icon
of the monarchy. With its nearly 70,000 books, it was one of the largest of its kind:
everything about it contributed to creating a singular picture of what the country
was and of what it hoped to become. But the fire made no distinctions. It destroyed
everything and everybody: all that paper was reduced to ashes and dust. After the
earthquake, Portugal awoke in mourning for its dead, in tears for its dwellings and
monuments—and found its culture depleted: the books and documents were gone
and all that remained were memories of that marvellous collection upon which so
much Cartesian logic had been lavished, of all the painstaking work that had gone
into cataloguing its contents by title, subject and format.

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