Portugal’s recent economic turmoil may obscure the fact that it was once a majestic trading empire with global reach but a visit to Porto’s Palacio da Bolsa, the former stock exchange, will plunge you right back into a world of wealth and abundance. If only for an hour you’ll revisit the grandeur of the early 19th century, with all the ornateness, proportion and diversity money could then buy.
From the outside it doesn’t look like a stock exchange at all but more like a palace or a wealthy monastery. It was started in 1842 on the ruins of a burned-out Franciscan convent but the inside was completed only in 1910 so it went through a number of architects and artists, which contributes in part to the sometimes whimsical mixture of styles.
The Palacio da Bolsa was built using every style popular in Porto at the time, especially neo-classicism or, according to some experts, a neo-palladian influence although you’d have to be an architect to know the difference.
The front columns are clearly influenced by classical Greece and Rome. The palladian elements, courtesy of Andrea Palladio, a 16th-century Italian architect who revived classical building, include the huge domed atrium of the Hall of Nations.
The Hall of Nations is one of the Stock Exchange’s most spectacular rooms. Let’s not forget the building was designed to house commerce and Portugal was a major trading power. Around the edges you’ll find coats of arms of the many countries with which Portugal had trading relations but whether you look at the domed ceiling, the walls or the ornate mosaic floor (inspired by those found in Pompei, some say) your head will spin with colors and shapes.
The official descriptions talk of “a sensation of indescribable glory” and while this may be over the top, I did get a sense of Portugal’s majestic past by looking up at the sweeping spaces.
One of the most astounding rooms – and my personal favorite – is the Arabian Room, inspired by Granada’s Alhambra, they say, but inescapably Moorish and ornate. Although the Palacio da Bolsa hasn’t been used as a stock exchange since the 1990s, dignitaries enjoy receptions under this room’s glittering lights. I only managed to whip out my camera briefly to capture a minute amount of the detail, the plaster, the colors, the gold.
Another room that still serves a practical purpose is the General Assembly room, where the Porto Trade Association holds his annual meetings, a testimony to this once powerful trading center.
Porto was, after all, the home of Prince Henry the Navigator, whose farsightedness and financing allowed explorers to round the Cape of Good Hope and establish a sea route to the Indies, introducing Portugal to an era of discovery (and of slavery and colonialism as well). In these rooms, that sense of empire is all around.
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