Military Wiki
Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)
Tower of Saint Vincent
Fortification (Forte)
The iconic quarter façade of the Tower of Belém on the bank of the Tagus River
Official name: Torre de São Vicente
Name origin: torre de belém Portuguese for tower of Bethlehem;
Country  Portugal
Region Lisbon
Sub-region Grande Lisboa
District Lisbon
Municipality Lisbon
Location Santa Maria de Belém
 - elevation 6 m (20 ft)
 - coordinates 38°41′29.72″N 9°12′57.55″W / 38.6915889°N 9.2159861°W / 38.6915889; -9.2159861
Architects Francisco de Arruda
Style Manueline
Materials Pedra Lioz (Limestone), Tile, Wood
Origin c. 1513
 - Initiated c. 1515
 - Completion 1519
Owner Portuguese Republic
For public Public
Visitation Closed (Mondays and on 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May and 25 December)
Easiest access Avenida da Brasília
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Name Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém
Year 1983 (#7)
Number 263
Region Europe and North America
Criteria iii, vi
Management Instituto Gestão do Patrimonio Arquitectónico e Arqueológico
Operator Centro de eLearning do Instituto Politécnico de Tomar (IPT) e Área
October–April 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
May–September 10:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
Location of the Belém Tower within the municipality of Lisbon
Wikimedia Commons: Belém Tower

Belém Tower (Portuguese: Torre de Belém , pronounced: [ˈtoʁ(ɨ) dɨ bɨˈlɐ̃ȷ̃]) or the Tower of St Vincent[1] is a fortified tower located in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém in the municipality of Lisbon, Portugal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery)[2] because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries.[3] The tower was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus river and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.[3]

The tower was built in the early 16th century and is a prominent example of the Portuguese Manueline style,[4] but it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles.[5] The structure was built from lioz limestone and is composed of a bastion and the 30 m (100 foot),[1] four storey tower. It has incorrectly been stated that the tower was built in the middle of the Tagus and now sits near the shore because the river was redirected after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In fact, the tower was built on a small island in the Tagus River near the Lisbon shore.[5][6]


French ships in the Tagus being bombarded by the Tower's canon during the Liberal Wars (1831)

The Tower was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and included in the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal in 2007

In the late 15th century, King John II had designed a defense system for the mouth of the Tagus that depended on the Fortresses of Cascais and São Sebastião (or Torre Velho) in Caparica on the south side of the river.[5][7] These fortresses did not completely cover the mouth of the river and further protection was required.[7] In the first half of the 16th century, in the "Chronicle of John II", the author Garcia de Resende, affirmed the monarch's opinion that the defenses of Lisbon were insufficient, and that he had insisted on providing efficient fortifications along the entrance to the Tagus river to supplement the existing defenses.[8] To this end, he ordered the "making of a strong fort", of which Garcia de Resende came to sketch. But the monarch died, before any plans were initiated.[9] It was King Manuel I of Portugal, twenty years later, who revisited the idea, ordering the construction of a military fortification on the southern margin of the Tagus, around the beach in Belém.[7] In 1513, a letter authored by Lourenço Fernandes to his friends, referred to the King's intention to construct a tower in the area of Restelo Velho, having determined it to be necessary.

The beginning of this project developed on a rocky outcropping that was situated some distance from the river, using some of the stones being collected to build the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém. By 1516, Francisco de Arruda (who was the "Master of the Bastion of Restelo"),[8] was already receiving 763 blocks and 504 stone for the construction, delivered by Diogo Rodrigues, the treasurer and receiver for the project. As construction progressed, the Grand Nau (Great Ship), a heavily armed, 1000 tonne (1100 ton) ship was used to supplement the defenses.[10][11]

In 1519, the build had concluded (just five years before Manuel's death), and Gaspar de Paiva was temporarily stationed to command the fortress.[12] This commission became permanent on 15 September 1521, when Gaspar de Paiva was appointed the first Captain-General, or alcalde, who named the fort to the invocation of the city's patron saint, naming the fortress the "Castle of São Vicente" (Castelo de São Vicente de Belém).[8][13]

Some years later (1571), Francisco de Holanda advised the monarch that it was necessary to improve the coastal defences in order to protect the Kingdom's capital. He suggested the construction of a "strong and impregnable" fort that could easily defend Lisbon and that the Belém Tower "should be strengthened, repaired and completed...that it has cost so much without being completed". D'Holanda designed an improved rectangular bastion, dotted with watchtowers.

In 1580, after a few hours of combat, the garrison stationed in the Tower surrendered to Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Alba.[9] Immediately after this defeat, during the Philippine Dynasty (1580-1640), the dungeons of the Tower served as the state prison until 1830.[8][13] It was also during the last quarter of the 16th century, that the construction of the Phillipian Barracks began. A rectangular two-storey space, was constructed over the bastion, taking on the visual profile that it has retained through the 20th century, with sculpted crosses of the Order of Christ and rounded watchtowers.

In 1589, Philip I of Portugal ordered Italian engineer Friar João Vicenzio Casale to project a powerful fort to be constructed in place of the "useless castle of São Vicente".[8] The engineer presented three proposals, that presupposed that the bastion would be surrounded by another bastion in greater dimensions, a protected that never materialized.

A 1633 codex for the House of Cadaval was inserted into one of the floors, in one of the arches of the barracks, and in four largest arches at the top of the southern façade. Similarly, a reference to 1655 was inscribed on a plaque placed on the northern wall of the cloister, which certified its function as customs control point and for navigation along the Tagus; vessels were obligated pay as they entered in the harbour, which was imposed incrementally.

Between 1780 and 1782, under the reign of Maria I of Portugal, General Guilherme de Valleré constructed the Forte of Bom Sucesso, whose battery was connected by a western corridor wall to the Tower.[8]

The French invasion of Lisbon, during the Peninsular War, resulted in the quartering of troops in the Tower between 1808 and 1814. After the retreat of French forces, Lord Beresford advised that coastal artillery batteries should be reinforced along the Tagus, and specifically noted that stronger batteries should be placed on the sides of the Tower's bastion, while carts placed to better cover the soldiers, since the walls were very low.

King Miguel I (1828–1834) used the dungeons to imprison his liberal opponents,[1] while on another level it used as a custom house for ships, until the tax on foreign ships was abolished in 1833.[8][13][14] The tower received military upgrades in 1589 and 1809–14.[9]

During the reign of Maria II, after protests by Almeida Garrett over the state of the site's degradation and the persuasion of the Duke of Tercira, renovations were initiated by military engineer António de Azevedo e Cunha.[8] He demolished the Phillipian barracks and extended revivalist elements in 1845–1846 (such as the armoured merlens, the balusters in the veranda along the southern façade, the laced fascia in the cloister and the niche with an image of the Virgin and Child.[9]

For several years (1865–1867) the building began to service new purposes: a beacon was installed on the extreme south-east terrace and a telegraph service was started, while nearby a gas factory was installed, which produced smoke and caused many protests.[8]

The first moves to preserve and rehabilitate the Tower began in the late part of the 20th century. First, the tower was transferred to the Ministry of Finance in 1940, which undertook small conservation works.[8] The military quarters on the battlements were removed and the inner cloister was built.[9] Later, starting in 1953 (and lasting three years), the architectural landscaper António Viana Barreto executed a plan to integrate the Tower with the local shore.[8] Various projects were undertaken in 1983, when the site hosted the 17th European Exhibition on Art, Science and Culture, including the covering the cloister with a transparent plastic cupola. In this year, it was also classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In the 1990s (1 June), the property was transferred into the Instituto Português do Património Arquitectónico (forerunner of IGESPAR), which began to complete a full restoration of the building. The tower and bastion received maintenance and restoration from February 1997 to January 1998, which included reinforcing the structure, treating the mortar joints and structural cleaning. Structural works included the reinforcement of the south balcony supports with stainless steel rods and epoxy resin. The same treatment also occurred in the statues of Saint Vincent of Saragossa and the Archangel Michael.[15] By 1999 the recuperation received an award (Europa Nostra) for the restoration of the exterior.[11] It was also included, on 7 July 2007, on the registry of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.


The Tower is situated on the northern bank of the Tagus River in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, municipality of Lisbon, accessible at the western end of the Avenida de Brasília. Nearby are the Monastery of the Jeronimos (to the east) and the Fort of Bom Sucesso (to the west), while to the north are the Tower Governor's residence, the old Governor's residence for the Bom Successo Fort, and the Chapel of São Jerónimo . The Tower itself is accessible via the Avenida de Brasília and by a small bridge that extends over the water to the structure.

The Tower of Belém is isolated along the riverbank, between the dock of Bom Sucesso and Pedrouços, on a basaltic outcropping of rocks from the Lisboa-Mafra Complex. Although, various guides have claimed that the tower was built in the middle of the Tagus, and now sits near the shore after the 1755 earthquake redirected the river, the truth is a lot simpler. The Portuguese Ministry of Culture (Ministério da Cultura) and Institute of Architectural Heritage, indicate that the tower was constructed on a small island near the bank of the Tagus, opposite the beach of Restelo. As development extended the shoreline progressively, more and more of the northern bank crept southwards into the Tagus; the tower becoming integrated into the riverbank overtime.[5][6][16]

The Belém Tower was built from lioz limestone, a light colored, rare stone that is local to the Lisbon area.[17] The building is divided into two parts: the bastion and the four story tower, located on the north side of the bastion.

The 16th century tower is considered one of the main works of the Portuguese late gothic, Manueline style.[4][16] This is especially apparent in its elaborate rib vaulting, crosses of the Order of Christ, armillary spheres and twisted rope, common with the nautical, organic Manueline style.[4][6]


A detailed view of a turret. A cross sits atop each turret. Two Order of Christ crosses can be seen on the edge of the bastion.

Bastion terrace with its Moorish bartizan turrets and cupolas from the northwest

The inner cloister and the back side of the virgin niche. In the center is the opening down into the casemate and in the background are two turrets on the bastion deck.

The innercloisterof the tower displaying the back side of the niche of the virgin and two turrets

Its plan is composed of a rectangular tower and an irregular, hexagonal bastion, with elongated flanks, that projects south into the river. It is basically a large articulated vertical space resting on a horizontal mass/slab, covered by exterior enclosures. On the north-east angle of the structure, protected by a protective wall with bartizans, there is a drawbridge to access the bulwark, decorated in plant motifs, surmounted by the Royal coat of arms and flanked by small columns, complemented with armillary spheres. The Manueline armillary spheres appear at the tower's entrance, symbolizing Portugal's nautical explorations, and were used on King Manuel I's personal banner to represent Portuguese discoveries during his rule.[6][18][19] The decorative carved, twisted rope and elegant knots also point to Portugal's nautical history and are common in the Manueline style.[4][6]

On the outside of the lower bastion, the walls have spaces for 17 canons with portholes open to the river and an ocular in the north. The upper tier of the bastion is crowned by a small wall with bartizans in strategic places, decorated by rounded shields with the cross of the Order of Christ that circle the platform. King Manuel I was a member of the Order of Christ[20] and the cross of the Order of Christ is repeatedly used numerous times on the parapets.[3][6] These were a symbol of Manuel's military power, as the knights of the Order of Christ contributed to numerous military conquests in that era.[20] The bartizans, cylindrical watchtowers in the corners are cover in zoomorphic corbels and domes covered with buds. The corners of this platform have turrets (guerites) topped by Moorish-looking cupolas. The base of the turrets have images of beasts, including a rhinoceros.[5][13] This rhinoceros is considered to be the first sculpture of such an animal in Western European art[5] and probably depicts the rhinoceros that Manuel I sent to Pope Leo X in 1515 (which was caged in the tower at one time[citation needed]).

While the tower is prominently Manueline,[4] it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles.[5] The tower was built by the military architect Francisco de Arruda, who had already built several fortresses in Portuguese territories in Morocco.[13] The influence of Moorish architecture manifests itself in the delicate decorations, the arched windows, the balconies, and the ribbed cupolas of the watchtowers.[3]

The tower has four storeys, with fenestrations and battlements, with the ground floor occupied by a vaulted cistern. On the first floor, there is a south-facing rectangular door, with arched windows in the east and north, and bartizans in the north-east and north-west corners. The southern part of the second floor is taken over by a covered veranda with matacães (or loggia), constituted by an arcade of seven arches, resting on large corbels with balusters. It is covered by a lace stonework to form a porch, and its sloped roof ends in a sculpted twisted rope.[1] The eastern, northern and western walls are occupied by double-arch enclosures, with the north-east and north-west corners occupied by statutes of Saint Vincent of Saragossa and the archangel Michael in niches. The third floor has twin-windows in the north, east and west façades, with balusters, interspersed by two armillary spheres and large relief with the Royal coat of arms. The final floor is encircled by a terrace with shields of the Order of Christ, and a northern arched door and eastern arched window. The terrace is circled by a low wall with colonnaded pyramidal merlins with bartizans in the four corners. A similar terrace above this floor offers a view of the surrounding landscape.[21][22]


Interior casemate of the main bastion showing the canon niches

A view from the second floor loggia

The interior part of the bastion cave, with a circular staircase in the north, has two contiguous halls with vaulted ceilings supported by masonry arches, with four lockers and sanitary installations. On the ground-floor bunker, the floor is inclined towards the outside, while the ceilings are supported by masonry pilasters and vaulted spines. Gothic rib vaulting is evident in this casemate,[23] the rooms of the tower[24] and the cupolas of the watchtowers on the bastion terrace.[3] Peripheral compartments on the edges of the bunker, allow the individual canons to occupy their own space, with the ceiling designed with several asymmetrical domes of various heights. The ancillary storerooms were later used as prisons.[25]

Two archways open to the main cloister in the north and south, while six broken arches stretch along the eastern and western parts of the cloister, interspersed with square pillars in the bastion cave, with gargoyle facets. The open cloister above the casemate, although decorative, was designed to dispel cannon smoke.[13][23] The upper level is connected by a railing decorated with crosses of the Order of Christ, while at the terrace the space is guarded by columns topped by armillary spheres. This space could also be used for light-caliber infantry. This was the first Portuguese fortification with a two-level gun emplacement and it marks a new development in military architecture. Some of the decoration dates from the renovation of the 1840s and is neo-Manueline, like the decoration of the small cloister on the bastion.[13]

On the southern portion of the cloister terrace is an image of Virgin and Child. The statue of the virgin of Belém, also referred to as Nossa Senhora de Bom Successo (Our Lady of Good Success), Nossa Senhora das Uvas (Our Lady of the Grapes) or the Virgem da Boa Viagem (Virgin of Safe Homecoming) is depicted holding a child in her right hand and a bunch of grapes in her left.

The tower is about 12 metres (39 ft) wide and 30 metres (98 ft) tall.[1] On the first floor interior of the Tower is the Sala do Governador (Governors Hall), an octagonal space that opens into the cistern, while in the north-east and north-west corners there are corridors that link to the bartizans. A small door provides access via a spiral staircase to the subsequent floors. On the second floor, the Sala dos Reis (King's Hall) opens to the loggia (to overlook the river), while a small corner fireplace extends from this floor to the third floor fireplace in the Sala das Audiências (Audience Hall). All three floor ceilings are covered in hollow concrete slabs. The fourth floor chapel is covered in a vaulted rib ceiling with niches emblematic of the Manueline style, supported by carved corbels.


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  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 International Council on Monuments and Sites (2008). "Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon (Portugal)". Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Donald F. Lach (1994). Asia in the making of Europe. University of Chicago Press. pp. 57–64. ISBN 0-226-46730-9. Retrieved 14 December 2009. 
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 IGESPAR - Instituto de Gestão do Património Arquitectónico e Arqueológico, ed (2011). "A Torre de São Vicente XVIII" (in Portuguese). Lisbon, Portugal: IGESPAR. Retrieved 16 July 2011. 
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 IGESPAR - Instituto de Gestão do Património Arquitectónico e Arqueológico, ed (2011). "Cronologia" (in Portuguese). Lisbon, Portugal: IGESPAR. Retrieved 16 July 2011. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Ministry of Culture (2000). "Chronology of the Tower of Belém". Archived from the original on 2 January 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  10. "Tower of Belem". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 7 April 2010. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 IPPAR – Instituto Português do Património Arquitectónico (Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage) (2006). "IPPAR Services: Belém Tower". Retrieved 9 December 2009. 
  12. Paiva was the brother of King Manuel's tutor.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 Ministry of Culture (2000). "History/Introduction". Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
  14. Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain) (1835). The Penny cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. C. Knight. p. 172. Retrieved 14 December 2009. 
  15. Ministry of Culture (2000). "Conservation and Restoration: Restoration works timetable". Retrieved 14 December 2009. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Mark Ellingham, John Fisher, Graham Kenyon (2002). The Rough Guide to Portugal, 10th edition. Rough Guides, Ltd. p. 97. ISBN 1-85828-877-0. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  17. Figueiredo; Aires-Barros; Basto; Graca; Mauricio (2007). "The weathering and weatherability of Basilica da Estrela stones, Lisbon, Portugal". In R. Přikryl, Bernard J. Smith. Geological Society of London. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-86239-218-2. 
  18. Instituto Camões (2005). "The Star of Cabral". Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  19. Martins, António. "Bandeiras navais históricas" (in Portuguese). Bandeiras de Portugal. Bandeiras do Bacano. Archived from the original on 23 February 2007. Retrieved 24 February 2007. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Order of the Knights of Christ". Catholic Encyclopedia. Wikisource, The Free Library. 1913, 6 March 2007. Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  21. Mary Ann Sullivan (2005). "Belem Tower (Torre de Belém)". Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  22. Ministry of Culture (2000). "Tower Terrace". Retrieved 8 December 2009. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 Ministry of Culture (2000). "Bulwark". Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
  24. Ministry of Culture (2000). "Chapel". Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
  25. Ministry of Culture (2000). "Bulwark terrace". Retrieved 7 December 2009. 
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