In May 2016, a small statue of Dom Sebastião, situated on a walled-pedestal in between two doorways of the ornate neo-Manueline Rossio (Lisbon) train station, was destroyed by a man’s attempt to take a photo ‘selfie’ with the statue by climbing up onto it. The statue had stood at the train station since its opening to the public in 1890, and has, since the incident, not yet been replaced leaving a noticeable empty space on the façade of the train station.

(Photo of the statue in 2015).[1]

As tourism continues to grow, new measures should be considered to conserve national and cultural heritage from the sheer numbers of people visiting historical sites in order to prevent avoidable damage. In September 2015, when I was inside the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém, Lisbon, I was surprised to see, who I assumed was a Portuguese man and someone else, hurriedly walk through the monastery without much interest. The pair, arriving at the tomb of Luís Vaz de Camões (I believe and not Vasco da Gama’s), then, this man, proceeded to reach for the stone tomb, touching it in some sort of wish granting ritual. Afterwards, this pair carried on in their hurried pace, now exiting the monastery. I am sure he was not the only one who has ever done this sort of thing. The problem is, if everyone touched every statue, monument, or tomb they visited, there would be further problems in maintaining these objects and their masonry, an additional factor to time and weather conditions alone. Take Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris as one example. In 2011, a glass wall was placed around the tomb due to the damage caused by hundreds of admiring visitors’ lipstick kisses.[2] New problems are facing many European cities due to interests in sites such as Wilde’s. It is the interactions people have when visiting sites of historical or cultural significance that must be better managed in order to respect the objects and sites that might not be here tomorrow. Venice, Italy, is currently at the frontline of a popular rejection of mass tourism due to the impact it is having on the lives of the locals and the lagoon environment.[3] Lisbon is not at this stage yet, and it may never be, however, the city has become increasingly accommodating for tourists since the Portuguese Financial Crisis (2010-2014) and this is understandable, as tourism has helped Portugal economically, but it is, in my opinion, much to the city’s detriment.

Despite many visitors to Lisbon, many may have missed the small and subtly placed statue of Dom Sebastião. I argue, it was probably one of Lisbon’s best statues because it was within the city centre, rather than in the Belém district (an area further out that is known as the location for some of the nation’s most important architectural structures). The statue was unobtrusive, modest, referential and not just a single statue, but part of a neo-Manueline façade that spreads from various doorways and windows working together as one large architectural art piece. It was a statue many lisboetas would likely not dispute its right of place in the city, in contrast to the statue to Padre António Vieira or the monument to Marquês de Pombal (Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo). Both these men, able to divide opinions in contemporary Portugal due to re-evaluations of their biographies. Vieira’s religious ‘conversions’ of Africans and Indigenous peoples in the Portuguese colonies, and his association to a time of colonial violence and slavery, are matters that cast a shadow over his name.[4] Pombal’s dictatorial reign and killings of his supposed enemies is also controversial. However, Dom Sebastião in his short life, has arguably a status of greater magnitude than the two aforementioned, even though they certainly did more for Portugal than the young king did, who, ultimately, with his passing ended Portugal’s Golden Age, leading the kingdom to decline. Nonetheless, this destroyed statue of Dom Sebastião can be read as simply, a statue of a previous king from a time in which Portugal was led by an absolute monarchy. Every European nation has these types of statues, however, what makes this figure special is his fall and possible return known as Sebastianismo.

Sebastião, was still in his mother’s womb when his father Infante João Manuel died at 16 years old (the heir to the Portuguese throne). Sebastião was crowned king of Portugal in 1557 due to King João III’s nine sons dying young, leaving the Portuguese throne to João’s grandson, Sebastião. As a young king, perhaps Sebastião was too impulsive and fervent towards conquest to the point of obsession. An ambition that led him to his death at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in Morocco at the age of 24. Sebastião, leaving no heirs meant the brother of the previous king (João III), and fellow son of Manuel I (the king before João III), would take the throne. The problem with this new king, Dom Henrique, was that he was an elderly cardinal and, therefore, had no heirs himself due to his religious station. Dom Henrique’s death, therefore, lead to a succession crisis resulting in the Iberian Union (1580-1640) in which the Spanish Habsburgs would rule Portugal and her empire as one with their own for 60 years. At this time, there was no idea how long this dynastic union would last for, and it was during this period, more than ever, a hope of the return of Dom Sebastião emerged. A dream of the restoration of the Portuguese Kingdom and its empire; a return to glory. This messianic myth had its basis on the lack of evidence of Sebastião’s death. The body of the ‘boy king’ was never accurately identified, therefore, the belief he escaped the battlefield spread. That he was somewhere alive and would return to Portugal on a misty morning, at a time of her need, restoring Portuguese sovereignty. Even when Portugal regained its sovereignty without Sebastião returning, as demonstrated with the Portuguese Restoration War (1640-1668), and the new Portuguese king Dom João IV, the myth remained. For example, in the 19th century, during the French invasion of Portugal in 1807, and the exile of then a later Portuguese monarchy to Portugal’s colony in Brazil, the myth of Sebastianismo was re-galvanised. The myth survived as a patriotic device necessary for a country no longer with governing autonomy to stay optimistic and hopeful for a return to greatness. However, as the centuries passed it was no longer feasible that Sebastião would still be alive due to an age he would now have, somehow, lived up to. However, the myth still had resonance, albeit not as strongly as it once held in the 16th century.

The Sebastianismo myth of a national restoration, however, is not unique. It also existed in other kingdoms across Europe in various epochs that now continue as folkloric stories. These stories mainly function as romantic ideals. A good example is the myth of King Arthur and King Harold. The myth of King Harold is similar to the later myth of Sebastianismo, as King Harold’s legend was that he was also not felled in battle (the Battle of Hastings in 1066), and would return to rid England from the Norman yoke.[5] The statue at Rossio train station, therefore, symbolises not only a young Portuguese monarch, but an enduring legend and, it is for this reason, the loss of the statue is sad for Portugal. It has lost a statue that informs a collective memory about this former king. Moreover, the statue has been in place at the train station throughout momentous events in the Portuguese capital: the fall of the Portuguese monarchy; the birth of the First Portuguese Republic, and the assassination of the fourth President of the Republic within the train station itself.[6] Furthermore, the statue had rested at the train station during the rise and fall of the Second Portuguese Republic – the National Dictatorship, followed by the Estado Novo regime; this period ending in 1974 with the Carnation Revolution that led to the Third Portuguese Republic and modern Portugal taking shape. This is a history that the statue witness at the train station up until 2016 when it was destroyed on accident. The significance of the statue therefore, regardless of its historical meaning in which the figure Dom Sebastião represents for the Portuguese, and the statue’s ability to remind us of a Portuguese history and myth, is the issue of just how long the statue has been around. It has been part of Lisbon’s daily life cycle for passers-by and commuters at the train station for 126 years. As I suggest, the reasons to lament the statue’s destruction, that I believe it does genuinely garner, it is, in many ways, ironic as Sebastião although born in Lisbon (the country’s capital at the time since 1255, before it Coimbra, which would later move to Rio de Janeiro and then the Azores, before Lisbon becoming the capital again) disliked the city and would not visit often according to Charles Ralph Boxer.[7]

(Photo of the empty walled-pedestal in 2018).[8]

There is hope for a statue to return to Rossio train station that depicts Dom Sebastião. At the moment, there are two statues of the young king in existence that could be suitable. The first, and best proposition, is the existence of an identical replica, possibly from the same mould as the original destroyed statue. This statue is in the possession of Lisbon’s Dr. Gama Pinto, Institute of Ophthalmology who have the statue in storage.[9] The second, that could suffice, is the statue in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporãnea do Chiado. In its collection, the Chiado museum has a statue of the king from 1877 by José Simões de Almeida Júnior (Tio). This second statue, however, is of different material and colour, and would not be ideal compared to the first option, which is identical to the one destroyed. Moreover, the Chiado museum statue is too precious to be on display outside, exposed to the elements, so this suggestion as it being a replacement would only further damage a Portuguese sculpture. Furthermore, this statue, due to it different appearance, would not be able to repair the historical timeline of 126 years and continue it, but would instead, introduce an alternative statue in its place that would signify a clear visual transition. It would mark the train station, reminding the public there was once a different statue there, one that has been replaced rather than restored due to an obvious different one taking up its position. Therefore, it is best to use an identical statue to achieve a visual continuation at the site. Hopefully, the original statue’s replica will be used. A possession that seems to be designed for this exact purpose as a backup, because the original statue was never secured down. Instead, the original statue of Dom Sebastião was resting on its walled-pedestal-shelf by its own weight alone for all those years. Nonetheless, the replica statue would be prefect, that due to its identical features to the original, it would act as the legitimate heir, excusing a few years of absence in which Sebastião does return, but here as if the event in 2016 never happened.

The return of Dom Sebastião may then occur, but not in the messianic way many once hoped for during the Iberian Union or, to a lesser extent, during the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal. Nonetheless, his return to the façade of Rossio train station is something that I am waiting for that hopefully will occur unlike the real king himself.

«É O que eu me sonhei que eterno dura,
É Esse que regressarei.»[10]

Notes :

[1] Photo of the statue of Dom Sebastião and a section of the neo-Manueline façade at the Rossio train station, taken by me in January 2015, Lisbon.

[2] Tagliabue (2011).

[3] Giuffrida (2019).

[4] Ernesto (2017).

[5] Hartland (1891).

[6] Sidónio Pais (the 4th President of the Portuguese Republic) was assassinated inside the Rossio train station by a gunman in 1918.

[7] Boxer (1969), p. 368.

[8] Photo of the empty walled-pedestal where the statue of Dom Sebastião used to stand at Rossio train station, taken by me in October 2018, Lisbon.

[9] Borges (2016).

[10] Pessoa (2007). An excerpt of the poem, Primeiro / D. Sebastião in the only book published during Fernando Pessoa’s lifetime, Mensagem, originally published in Lisbon by Parceria António Maria Pereira in 1934. The quote reads in English, ‘The One I have dreamed myself is the ever-enduring, As this I shall come again.’

Bibliography :

Borges, Liliana, ‘Afinal, Havia Outro. O Regresso do Rei D. Sebastião Pode Estar Perto’, Publico, 10 May 2016, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Boxer, Charles Ralph, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire 1415-1825 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), pp. 367-78.

Ernesto, Ana Yekenha, ‘Extrema-Direita Impede Manifestação Contra Estátua do Padre António Vieira em Lisboa’, Diário de Notícias, 6 October 2017, <> [accessed 7 August 2019].

Giuffrida, Angela, ‘The Death of Venice? City’s Battles with Tourism and Flooding Reach Crisis Level’, Guardian, 6 January 2019, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Hartland, Edwin Sidney, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology (London: Walter Scott, 1891), p. 205.

Khalip, Andrei, ‘Selfie Gone Wrong Fells 126-Year-Old Statue of Portuguese King’, Reuters, 4 May 2016, <> [accessed 6 August 2019].

Pessoa, Fernando, Message / Mensagem, trans. Jonathan Griffin, 2nd edn (Exeter and London: Shearsman Books and The Menard Press, 2007), pp. 80-1.

Tagliabue, John, ‘Walling Off Oscar Wilde’s Tomb From Admirers’ Kisses’, New York Times, 15 December 2011, <> [accessed 7 August 2019].