The history of this exhibition begins in April of 1866, when the pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) left his home in Chelsea, London, to evaluate a painting he had seen in a small antique shop. “A large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez, [but] not, [I think], by the great V himself”, wrote the painter. The British art world had awakened to Spanish painting and collectors were on the lookout for works by great masters such as El Greco, Velázquez and Goya. Despite not recognising the city represented in the painting, Rossetti correctly guessed at its Iberian origin.
An impetuous and eclectic collector, Rossetti divided the canvas into two, probably because it did not fit on the already overcrowded walls of his London home. It is known that Rossetti took these two canvases with him, along with other works of art, when he went to live at Kelmscott Manor (Oxfordshire) with the painter William Morris (Rossetti and Morris shared this house for some months in 1871 and between 24th September, 1872 and July 11th, 1874). It is also known that the two paintings remained in Kelmscott Manor when Rossetti was forced to leave the house suddenly after a problematic love affair. They were later included in William Morris’ assets.
The paintings (currently owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London) have remained at Kelmscott Manor since the 19th century but the represented city was only identified in 2009, by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate Lowe. The first clue that led to its identification was the number of black people portrayed; in 16th century Europe, only Lisbon and a couple of Spanish cities had such a large percentage of Africans. The architectural details such as the tall narrow houses, the covered gallery with marble columns – 149 in total – and the iron railings led Lowe and Jordan to conclude that it was Lisbon. And, more specifically, Rua Nova dos Mercadores, Lisbon’s main trade street in the 16th century, full of merchants, acrobats, musicians, travelling salesmen, knights, jewels, silks, spices, exotic animals and other wonders imported from Africa, Brazil and Asia.
This exhibition aims to reconstitute the heart of Lisbon during the Renaissance with 249 pieces belonging to 77 lenders: 64 national (institutions and private collections) and 13 international (two private collections and 11 institutions, among them the British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, Museo Nacional del Prado, Leiden University Libraries and Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “Luigi Pigorini”).
On display for the first time in Portugal, the two paintings representing Rua Nova dos Mercadores open the first of the exhibition’s six sections: “Lisbon City Views: historical background”, “Novelties”, “From Africa”, “Shopping in Rua Nova”, “Animals from other worlds” and “Simão de Melo’s house”.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga Website