Lisbon's Earthquake: Description and Reconstruction

Two weeks ago, the 1st of November marked the 260th anniversary of the Lisbon Earthquake. Known as one of the most desastrous of history and the deadliest of Europe, it caught the city by surprise and left it completely destroyed. It also strongly affected the mentality of the time. People became very supersticious, seeing a sign of God in what happened on All Saints Day. 

Lisbon was not the only region touched by the earthquake. Taking its origin in the Atlantic Ocean, the earth tremor was felt as far as in Finland and Barbados. Small towns in Italy also suffered considerable damage. However, in Lisbon, the earthquake was followed by a tsunami. A huge wave washed over the city, which had been built around the port, facing the ocean with no protection. 

Indeed, the Great Discoveries of Vasco de Gama had brought power and wealth to the Portuguese capital. The royal family had moved their residence from the old Moorish Castle of São Jorge on the top of the hill to a brand new Palace built on what is known today as the “Praça do Comercio”, Lisbon’s main square on the edge of the Tagus river. The palace was completely destroyed. The king, traumatised, established his quarters in tents, where he lived for the next couple of years.

The reconstruction of Lisbon was trusted into the hands of the Marques de Pombal. A man of power and very modern for his time, he had the army watch over pillage and elaborated a plan to rebuilt the capital. Guided by the French architectural trends of the 18th century, large squares and bride avenues, he transformed the Praça do Comercio into the central element of Lisbon and reinforced the city’s role as a harbour. Pombal then traced four parallel streets connecting the square to the inside of the city through an imposing arch. This area is now the commercial center of Lisbon. 

The reconstruction of Lisbon also lead to the elaboration the first earthquake proof buildings of history. Pombal had army troops march around small reproductions of the new buildings to test their resistance. 

You might now have a very rectilinear image of Lisbon’s historic center. Don’t get fooled, Alfama and Bairro Alto, the two oldest areas of Lisbon, were spared by the tsunami and preserved their narrow and maze-like streets.