As you read this, visitors to Lisbon are snapping photos with three of the top landmarks in the city, completely unaware of a darker truth that is hidden in plain sight about these ionic places. Three major monuments are not what they seem…
From 1926 to 1974 Portugal was authoritarian state called the Estado Novo – or New State. It began with a military coup in 1926, ending the First Republic. The ruler of the Estado Novo, from 1932 to his death in 1969, was a finance professor named António de Oliveira Salazar. Under Salazar, architecture was used to foster a sense of nationalism and the past was often aggrandized and used to justify Portugal’s far-flung colonial empire. Salazar regime told Portuguese to honor "Deus, Pátria e Familia” or "God, Fatherland, and Family."
Lisbon was transformed in this period – with new avenues, neighborhoods, roadways and public works. Many used the same streamlined and neo-historic style seen in Germany and Italy. Three of the symbolic monuments of the Estado Novo are today in every major guidebook, but their dark past is often obscured.
The iconic riverside statue, a favorite spot for selfie enthusiasts, captures the luminaries of the 15th and 16th centuries. Contrary to common guidebook claims of its 1960 origin, this must-see monument has a deeper history. Originally known as the "Monument to the Navigators," it made its debut in 1940 during the notorious Portuguese World Exhibition (Exposição do Mundo Português). This exhibition, held to commemorate the nation's founding in 1140, focused on colonialism and aimed to justify Portugal's holdings in India, the Far East, and Africa. Propaganda surrounding the exhibition portrayed the Portuguese Empire as a unified entity spanning continents.
The monument, designed in 1939 by Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, represented a romanticized vision of Portuguese exploration during the 15th and 16th centuries. Crafted as part of the exhibition's propaganda, it symbolized the grandeur of Portuguese exploration.
Originally a temporary structure, a stone version of the monument was constructed in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry, further solidifying its place as a historical and cultural landmark. Today, this statue stands as a testament to Portugal's complex history, drawing crowds of visitors who are captivated by its timeless allure.
São Jorge’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) sits high above Lisbon overlooking the Rossio and the Tejo River. The fortified hilltop has Roman and Moorish sections, and most date to the post-1147 medieval period of Portuguese history. Everyday thousands of visitors climb its walls and enjoy the view. Very few know that the castle dates to… 1940, opening for the Portuguese World Exhibition. In the 1930, 40s and 50s, the Estado Novo regime launched a nationwide campaign to restore national monuments, from churches, cathedrals, castles and palaces – the idea was to inspire the population with proud structures from the past. Photos of Lisbon from the early 20th century show that little of the walls had survived. Castles were outdated by 1460 – as cannons came on the scene. São Jorge’s Castle was in ruin by 1755 when a massive earthquake shook the city, toppling the remaining walls. While many sections of defensive walls can be spotted around the Alfama, the castle itself was completely rebuilt between 1939-40, creating a new structure that is one of Lisbon’s key monuments today – built to inspire by an authoritarian state.
Cais das Colunas
Tourists flock to the River Tejo in front of Praça de Comércio, the heart of Lisbon. The focal point is the grand dock, Cais das Colunas, where people enjoy sunbathing and dipping their feet in the Tejo. Two striking white columns emerge from the tidal waters, defining this iconic spot. This was once a ferry pier.
While some online sources claim these columns are just remnants from the post-1755 rebuilding of the city, allegedly inspired by the Temple of Solomon, the truth is different. In 1939, the dock underwent restoration to welcome President Óscar Carmona back from his trip around the Portuguese empire. During a grand photo opportunity, Prime Minister Salazar joined him, and the pillars were inscribed with their names. If one looks closely beyond the tourists, they'll notice the bold, all-cap letters on the base of these famous columns: SALAZAR and CARMONA. This historical site, unfortunately, stands as a reminder of Portugal's fascist past.