Teeming With Coaches

At Lisbon's awe-inspiring Museu Nacional dos Coches, the gold-leaf and brocade, craftsmanship and excess are all nearly too much to bear. The museum is dedicated to some of the most opulent and fantastic vehicles ever built, focusing mainly on coaches and carriages from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Once the royal collection of Portugal, it's housed in the former riding arena (if you can believe it) of the court, under portraits of princes and queens, dukes and - of course - their horses.
What is perhaps most impressive about the collection is how infrequently some of these glittering, ornate things were used. Some of them served as transport for one journey, or even for one procession. This incredible thing was driven, apparently, only once, to impress Pope Clement XI in 1716. I'm sure it made some kind of impression - even though it was actually only one of fifteen one-off coaches that were sent as part of an embassy visit to the holy see.
The scene depicted, by the way, is a triumphal meeting of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
The immediate thing that is striking, though, is the sheer size and weightiness of the carriages. None could be called modest, many stretch over twenty five feet. Almost all of the vehicles are classified as "coaches" because of their suspended and enclosed cabins, four wheels, side doors and elevated driver's seat. This differs from, for example, a cabriolet, which has two doors, or a landau, which is open or convertible.
The Museu dos Coches illustrates very plainly just how absolute the authority of the European royals was. Their privilege gave birth to such a gluttony of creation that the individual coaches seem almost inconsequential when presented in this group. It's interesting to see, though, how the vehicles became plainer as the monarchy modernized. The later examples aren't nearly as ornate as the earlier specimens.
Besides the coaches, there are a few cabriolets and berlins, vitorias and coupes. Upstairs, there are a smattering children's carts, which were used to trot around the gardens in, pulled by ponies and goats.
Also in the museum, a sizable collection of what are called "litters" or sedan chairs. These are small boxes, essentially, which were carried around on poles, supported between two or more men. The one above belonged to the ill-fated king Pedro V, who reigned from 1853 to 1861, dying from cholera at age 24.
The most elaborate and gilt-heavy carriages were, without doubt, commissioned by João V, who reigned from 1706 to 1750. The relatively new exploitation of Brazilian diamond and gold mines had suddenly filled the royal coffers to bursting, and the young king began to emulate his contemporary Louis XV of France. He built dozens of exotic and expensive coaches, employing at least twenty artisans full time for several years. The craftsmanship is incredible, the detail never ending.
The museum is fascinating, certainly one of the best in Lisbon. It's a little far away from the center, but not difficult to reach by trolley line 15.
The Museu Nacional dos Coches's hours are: 10-6, Tuesday through Saturday, and 10-2 on Sundays. Admission is 5 euros, except Sunday, when it's free.
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