The Roman Cryptoportico

The Museum occupies a group of buildings that are superimposed, or that rise side by side. It is a vast repository of a two thousand year-old legacy left by both the growth of the city and the Episcopal Palace, established here in very early times (fig. 1).

The group of buildings are situated midway up a hill, where two mounds converge and deep depressions remain from ancient water lines, on a platform supported by an imposing podium.

This is the cryptoportico erected by the Roman administration in the middle of the 1st century, to support a building that became the political, administrative and religious centre of Aeminium Roman Coimbra.

The construction of the forum completed the implementation of an extensive programme to gradually remodel the architecture and urban plan of the indigenous oppidum which began during the time of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, who reconciled the Iberian Peninsula.

This plan was part of a process to develop the oppidum, which the conquerors had made the capital of a new Roman politico-administrative territory, and to broaden the effective organization and control of the Lusitanian province.

A milestone found in Mealhada, which indicates a distance of twelve miles, dates from the time of Caligula and is proof that Aeminium was in fact capital of civitas during this period.

View of the Bishop’s Palace from the west, dominating the hillside.

1.View of the Bishop’s Palace from the west, dominating the hillside.

South gallery of the upper level of the Roman cryptoportico. Opened to the public in 1972.

2.South gallery of the upper level of the Roman cryptoportico. Opened to the public in 1972.

Sequence of small compartments connecting the North and South galleries on the upper level of the cryptoportico.

3.Sequence of small compartments connecting the North and South galleries on the upper level of the cryptoportico.

Stairs connecting the cryptoportico to the level of the forum and the street. Excavated in 1993.

4. Stairs connecting the cryptoportico to the level of the forum and the street. Excavated in 1993.

Interior of the cloaca maxima excavated in steps in the rocky sub-soil.

5. Interior of the cloaca maxima excavated in steps in the rocky sub-soil.

Roman public fountain on the west façade of the cryptoportico. Excavated in 2003.

6. Roman public fountain on the west façade of the cryptoportico. Excavated in 2003.

Gateway of the medieval Palace wall, restored by Vergílio Correia..

7. Gateway of the medieval Palace wall, restored by Vergílio Correia..

The 16th century verandah attributed to Filippo Terzi...

8. The 16th century verandah attributed to Filippo Terzi...

The late 17th century church of S. João de Almedina.

9. The late 17th century church of S. João de Almedina.

Neo-Manueline phase of the northern block of the Palace. Remodelling work instigated by V. Correia. 1930-1932.

10. Neo-Manueline phase of the northern block of the Palace. Remodelling work instigated by V. Correia. 1930-1932.

Reception room of the Palace used as the first display area in the Museum. 1913.

11. Reception room of the Palace used as the first display area in the Museum. 1913.

Roof alterations to achieve overhead lighting for the painting gallery adjoining the old Episcopal hall.

12. Roof alterations to achieve overhead lighting for the painting gallery adjoining the old Episcopal hall.

Portal of St. Thomas, mounted on the Museum exterior between 1933-35.

13. Portal of St. Thomas, mounted on the Museum exterior between 1933-35.

View of construction work to the south and west façades of the Museum in the 1940s.

14. View of construction work to the south and west façades of the Museum in the 1940s.

 Remounting of the Pre-Romanesque cloister in its original location during the 1940s.

15. Remounting of the Pre-Romanesque cloister in its original location during the 1940s.

Indoor staircase connecting the two levels of the Museum in the second half of the 20th century.

16. Indoor staircase connecting the two levels of the Museum in the second half of the 20th century.

The Tesoureiro Chapel (16th cent.) placed in the north patio of the Museum in 1967.

17. The Tesoureiro Chapel (16th cent.) placed in the north patio of the Museum in 1967.

The forum probably dates from the middle of the first century for two reasons: firstly, during the reign of Claudius, Lusitania experienced an important economic development, primarily in the south, the Emperor giving the native people benefits which included the opportunity to become Roman citizens; secondly, the archaeological materials found in association with the foundation layers of the cryptoportico support that chronology.

The choice of locale would not have been a random one. The immense podium would stand out architecturally and have an ideological significance in the heart of the urban network of Aeminium , especially with the main civic centre being situated above it.

By choosing to build a system of galleries – and not a voluminous embankment – to establish the necessary foundations, the architect was able to gain more covered circulation space related to the activities of the forum . While some areas could have been meant for miscellaneous storage purposes, on particularly hot days people could walk through the other areas and enjoy the shady atmosphere and the special thermal characteristics of the building (fig. 2).

The cryptoportico consists of two vaulted galleries, one above the other. On the upper level are two galleries joined in the shape of pi (p) and linked transversally by a set of seven small rectangular rooms that open to the outside (fig. 3) – along the west façade – where small, narrow openings provided light and ventilation. The lower level is reduced to a gallery placed transversely to another set of seven rooms – higher and more spacious than those of the upper level – that are interconnected via narrow, vaulted passageways. The galleries, built of large blocks of dry-laid local limestone, have a few overhead air openings at intervals on the upper level and small exedrae . The vaults, covering large spaces, are generously filled with a high resistant lime-mortar. The archways of spans between the galleries were made of stone or brick. The floors – paved after excavation – extended throughout the interior.

Two flights of stairs, located on opposite ends of the western side of the building, linked the two levels. Other stairs, located in the southeast corner (fig. 4), provided access from the upper level to the forum or exterior – where the city’s two main roads intersected. As a whole, the cryptoportico structure is remarkable, principally for its robust construction and its elegant links with the transit levels..

the square. This basilica – attested to by an altar to the respective protective Genius – most probably housed a Julio-Claudian cycle of statuary to which belong the marble heads of Agrippina and perhaps of Livia, found in the rubble of the cryptoportico, thus reinforcing the strong ideological support for the Principate which this space reflects. The axial chapel may also have been the tribunal, where cases under the jurisdiction of local magistrates would have been tried. There are also small areas reserved for other public purposes of an administrative nature. The basilica-building complex would therefore have played a most important role by convening the main politico-administrative and religious activities of this urban centre.
A row of colonnades would have surrounded the remaining sides of the central square of the forum leading to the exterior of the building to the east through the main gate of access to the forum. On the opposite side it would have opened out westwards over a spectacular panorama where the River Mondego wove its way through a breathtaking, vast and green landscape.

The façade’s topographic location and considerable height of over twenty meters undoubtedly made it one of the tallest Roman façades in all Hispania. These two factors projected the building’s image from a distance, placing it in a new cultural landscape that became a reference point for the new government. Without doubt, the sense of power and solidity would impress travellers viewing it from afar, admiring it more than any other feature, as they entered the city from the west. Those climbing the hill from the west towards the forum , would cross one of the city’s principal routes – the decamanus maximus. Today, this is somewhat resurrected in the present access, which begins at the entrance to the Almedina, passing through the Quebra-Costas, and ending with the Rua Borges Carneiro that intersects another important Roman road, the cardo maximus, which crossed the city from north to south in an almost straight line and which remains today as the Couraça dos Apóstolos.

The city’s main sewer ran beneath the decumanus and part of the cryptoportico towards the river collecting rain, water and waste from the large public buildings and houses (fig. 5). Recent excavations have revealed secondary sewers connected to this cloaca maxima.

The sewers to the west of the Beco das Condeixeiras had the capacity to carry the discharge from baths or from a populous city-housing block. As the city baths were usually located within the vicinity of the forum, it is tempting to imagine that the public baths were situated here.

The discovery of a series of pillars at this site suggests that there may have been a building façade with a portico, which seems more likely than a colonnade running along the decumanus. Therefore, it appears doubtful that this colonnaded path was linked to the western façade of the cryptoportico, especially when considering that the nearby public fountain (fig. 6) almost certainly opened onto a square.

The Episcopal Residence

After the Germanic invaders conquered Aeminium in the second half of the 5th century, the forum fell into disuse and disrepair. Nothing is known for certain about the occupations of this monumental part of the city until the 11th century.

It seems most likely that the Pre-Romanesque cloister, belonging to the early church of S. João de Almedina, mentioned in a document dated 1083, was built at the end of this century. Located in the northeast quadrant of an area later occupied by the Episcopal residence, it has been revealed by vestiges which first appeared in 1895–96 when the Palace was being remodelled.

Had the Bishops lived here since the diocese was transferred from Conimbriga to Aeminium or did the building date to the 11th century after the Reconquest in 1064, or was it from the following century?

Between 1128 and 1131, the Bishop, Bernardo, ordered the construction of a new church that operated as an Episcopal chapel until the end of the 17th century.

It can be understood from the remains of this church preserved in situ, that it was wider than the Cathedral itself. The location and size suggest that they probably had been determined by previous structures dating back to the Roman period. In fact, it is easy to prove that the Episcopal Palace and two successive churches were located in an area of the forum occupied by buildings. In Medieval times the square gave place to the large courtyard used by the Bishops as a cemetery.

It is of interest to note the concern of the prelates in extending their property to the entire cryptoportico platform, a fact attested by documents from the mid-12th century regarding sales and exchanges of private buildings.

The horseshoe arched doorway, crowned with battlements (fig. 7) on the outside was part of the enclosure which demarcated and defended the Palace and its forecourt from the end of the 12th century.

Little is known of the evolution of the Episcopal Palace until the end of the 16th century when the Bishop, D. Afonso de Castelo Branco began, amongst other works, to remodel the southern block. He commissioned the construction of the verandah (fig. 8), attributed to Filippo Terzi, and replaced the portal where he had the date 1592, his coat of arms and that of his predecessor, D. Jorge de Almeida, engraved. At the beginning of the 16th century this bishop had carried out the first remodelling of the buildings on a large scale, more especially the oldest one to the north that retained its ‘mudejar’ ceilings and the Manueline-style vestiges of this intervention well into the 19th century.

During the 17th century other alterations took place, such as the caisson ceilings in the southern block and the fountain in the large courtyard. But of all changes made to the Palace the most significant was the replacement of the Romanesque church by the one that now stands next to the Museum (fig. 9). .

The new temple was the work of D. João de Melo who was in charge of the diocese between 1684 and 1704. By changing the orientation of the church he gave it direct accessibility from the street providing the patio with a privacy it had never had.

The southern block and eastern wing still preserve some wainscoting of polychrome ‘azulejos’ from the 18th century. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century, the panels portraying some of the projects for the buildings commissioned by the University Reformer and Dean, Bishop Francisco de Lemos, were lifted and treated as individual museum pieces.In the 19th century, as part of a project by the civil engineer, Adolfo Loureiro, the northern block was altered to include an adjoining patio, giving the building a neo-Manueline appearance (fig. 10). Despite such repairs, the Palace was in such a state of degradation by the end of the century that D. Manuel de Bastos Pina was forced to abandon

The Museum

On February 10th, 1912, the Coimbra City Council agreed to lease the Palace in order to install the Museum. The following month saw limited construction work to modify the building with the help of a loan made by Manuel Rodrigues da Silva, a private citizen who wanted to ensure that the Museum be inaugurated in October of the following year.

Although anxious to keep the Museum open regularly to fulfill the educational mission to which he was so dedicated, A. Augusto Gonçalves did not hesitate to change or close some exhibition spaces in order to improve the condition of the display areas.

He had some basic concerns: illumination, the presentation of the collections and security. His dream to completely remodel the dark and compartmentalized interior of the building was, however, never realized due to the lack of both an integral design and adequate financing. His mark was only to be left on the ground floor.

His was the interesting decision to close the painting galleries in 1914 in order to enlarge the exhibition spaces and provide them with overhead lighting (fig. 12) thus helping to control the excessive summer temperatures. In the following year Gonçalves was to receive the necessary funding, not only for this project but also to initiate the adaptation of the Church of S. João de Almedina which, in the meantime, had been converted for secular use, causing some controversy as the National Arts Council was against the use of the church for museum purposes.

Nevertheless, the sacred art section opened to the public in 1923. This remodelling was reversible and only affected the façade. For no apparent reason two large windows were opened at mid-height and the circular window and the gap-windows on the lower level were widened.

Under the direction of Vergílio Correia, the Museum buildings underwent greater changes as part of an overall plan developed in 1935 and implemented slowly, reliant on meagre annual financing.

His initial, though isolated, repairs transpire between 1933–35: excavation works began in the cryptoportico and the area corresponding to the Romanesque church. The portals of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas (fig. 13), recovered respectively from the already secular Convento de Santa Ana and Colégio de S. Tomás, have been mounted in the museum.

Two main concerns guided Correia’s plan: to emphasize the architectural aspects of the building and devise a logical display. Consequently, he began by removing the ‘azulejos’ applied by A. Augusto Gonçalves to the courtyard façades. He closed or modified fortuitous openings and began to clear the medieval gate of the Palace enclosure by moving the southeast corner of the building and modifying the front forecourt (fig. 7). It was also during this period that the building’s southern and western façades were completely remodelled (fig. 14).

At the same time, all that remained of the Pre-Romanesque cloister was re-erected in its original location (fig. 15). A two-story exhibition ‘pavilion’ was constructed above it and another was begun adjacent to St. Thomas’ portal for the Bishop’s carriages and for storage.

Under this same plan general repairs were made to the old roofs, ceiling and floors as well as to the two floors of the northern block, including the access courtyard.

Only at the beginning of the 1950s, under the directorship of L. Reis Santos, an adjoining building for technical and administrative purposes was built in the locale on the northeast corner, previously occupied by the Instituto de Coimbra.

This same Director was responsible for the indoor connection between the two floors (fig. 16) from a southwesterly angle making the visits easier and more logical. The adjoining church was definitively separated from the collections and now functions as a hall for concerts and conferences. For the first time, the Museum had an adequate space for temporary exhibitions with its own entrance via the Couraça dos Apóstolos

Between 1952 and 1962, the galleries on the upper floor of the cryptoportico were emptied in preparation for the restoration of the vaults, and were opened to the public ten years later.

Despite successive improvements the Museum still lacked space, and the infrastructure did not meet the requirements of a modern museum. In 1967 the decision to transfer the Capela do Tesoureiro – one of the finest works produced by the sculptor João de Ruão, for the Convento de S. Domingos – to the northern patio worsened the circulation of both the public and the staff of the museum and caused serious problems in the preservation of the building and the chapel itself (fig. 17).

Thus in the 1980s, efforts were made to acquire the land adjacent to the west in order to expand the Museum. This was part of a programme – only approved at the end of 1990 – that simultaneously considered all structural and display aspects. To fulfill this programme, the Museum had to close completely in 2004 to instigate necessary archaeological and geo-technical investigation.

Almost a century after it was founded, the Machado de Castro National Museum is adapting to the demands of a new museological concept by providing a fresh look to the main features of an already fully consolidated identity.

Maquette. Project by G. Byrne for the expansion of the Museum. 2004

18. Maquette. Project by G. Byrne for the expansion of the Museum. 2004