A different introduction to Alfama


Street Life in Alfama anno 1570-80


Think about this, when you walk the streets of Alfama

One of the reasons why we chose the quiet and very residential Senhora do Monte in Graça as our location for Tings Lisbon was its proximity to Lisbon’s popular tourist sights and attractions.

Yesterday a good friend of mine tagged me in a BBC 2 trailer about a historical 16th century painting by an unknown Flemish painter showing the street life in Alfama, less than 10 minutes walk from our door.

The 1755 earthquake erased Alfama and most of Lisbon. So it was very interesting to see the paintings snapshot of the local life and architecture ‘just around the corner from us’ more than 400 years ago.

But what really caught my interest was seeing how different the ‘roles’ among the 1570 locals were. The mix of culture and races in the painting show a tolerant society so far from the racism and intolerance we left behind, when we left Denmark in 2009. Seeing a 16th century painting where blacks are slave owners not only turned my history upside down. It also showed me, how tolerant Lisbon was already then (it didn’t matter to the slaves though, I guess).



Want to know more about the painting?

In 2013 Walters Art Museum in Baltimore showed an exhibition about Africans and their descendant’s role in Renaissance Europe as revealed in compelling paintings, drawings, sculpture and printed books of the period.  

One of the key items in that exhibition was the painting Chafariz d’El Rei from 1570-80 by an unknown but (most probably Flemish painter).

Medieval Painting Hints at Ties Between Blacks and Jews

 Forward LOGO TransparantThe anonymous 16th-century painter who recorded a scene of everyday life at the king’s fountain (Chafariz d’El Rei) in Lisbon depicted an impressive range of people and animals. In addition to a swan, a seal, fish, horses, dogs and birds, the artist also included more than 150 human figures.

Chafariz d_El Rei DETAIL 2

Jewish policemen hauling away a drunk black person

There’s so much going on in the busy scene along Lisbon’s port that Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, can be forgiven for initially overlooking an important detail. Only after she had finished working on the exhibition catalog did Spicer notice how many Jews appeared in the work.

The artist depicted at least half a dozen Jewish men — the women’s religious identities are more difficult to discern — including two Jewish policemen hauling away a black man who appears, according to the wall text, to be “drunk and sheepish.” The latter figure and several other Africans explain the painting’s appearance in the exhibit “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” which is at the Walters through January 21. It subsequently travels to the Princeton University Art Museum, where it will be shown from February 16 to June 9.

Chafariz d_El Rei DETAIL 1

Is this João de Sá Panasco, on his horse and wearing the symbol of the Order of St. James

“I was really unaware of the presence of so many Jews in this painting until I began to blow up details of a photo in preparation for installing the work,” says Spicer, who recognized the Jewish figures from research she conducted for a 1996 article, “The Star of David and Jewish Culture in Prague around 1600,” which appeared in The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery. “This is the only image I know of — certainly painting from this period that purports to show Jews Although medieval Jewish law isn’t even a minor focus of the exhibit, a comparison can be made between approaches to slavery under Jewish and European law. Jewish law permits several forms of slavery, but as Maimonides recorded in the “Laws of Slaves” (9:8) in his “Mishneh Torah,” the “early wise men” had their servants fed before they themselves ate, and shared the same menu as their slaves.

Paintings of everyday life were popular in Flanders but not in Portugal, so the anonymous painter was probably a Flemish visitor inspired by the urban scene, according to Spicer. The painting is not only unprecedented for its portrayal of so many Jews — who have long beards, flat berets and yellow circles affixed to their clothes, per Charles V’s ruling — in the 1500s, but also for its depiction of so many African figures.


“Lisbon in Portugal was once the centre of a global empire.#Civilisations” was BBC 2′ comments to the 16th century painting where The Black were the slave owners. So hopefully the Black Panther is a sign of a new civilization without the tourist hatred that is growing fast in especially Alfama.

Jewish masters are even charged with speaking “calmly” to their slaves and controlling their anger, for they are both children of the same God. Viewers who read the wall texts at the Walters learn that though Africans were sold as slaves to Europe, their children were free.

That’s why many of the African figures in the 16th-century painting are identifiable by their capes as free men. One — who may be João de Sá Panasco, who worked his way up from slave and jester to gentleman — is shown riding a horse and wearing the symbol of the Order of St. James.

From Menachem Wecker for Forward, 9 January 2013

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