Now it is difficult for me to reconstruct how I ever found out about Golegã and the Casa Relvas. I think when planning our trip, I was looking for information about photography museums in Portugal, and so found the site about Carlos Relvas and his studio-house in the town. But it wasn’t until we were in Lisbon that I realized that Golegã wasn’t just a suburb of the city, but was an hour and a half away. And when no one at the train station had any idea how to get to the town, or had even heard of it, I started to think this was another case of an eccentric 19th-century photographer in the middle of nowhere, and wondered if it was worth figuring out how to get there. But going a bit stir crazy in our inner-city Lisbon apartment after a bout of the turistas, I determined that we would rent a car and drive north, stopping in Golegã if we could find it on the map, and then go on to the university town of Coimbra. Road trip!!!
From some guide books and the well-versed folks at the amiable car rental office, we did get vague information about Golegã being famous for its annual horse fair, but that’s about all we knew as we drove north on the expressway. Portuguese road signage leaves a lot to be desired, and the GPS in the car went a bit off-kilter, but we finally got on the country road to the village. As we entered I still thought this was going to be some sad hole-in-the-wall suspicious of foreigners. We parked the car as soon as we could, and tentatively walked toward the church that we could see up the road. This is what we found: a lovely plaza, with a prosperous-looking cafe. When we entered, we knew that this was not a poverty-stricken village, but instead a comfortably wealthy place, definitely the center of horses and prize bulls. Even the dishes at
the cafe touted this fact! From the other patrons and the general air of prosperity, we felt like we were in Lexington, Kentucky or other horse-breeding centers. (Actually, it reminded me a bit of Ojai, California). We had a lovely meal in its artistic surroundings (thoughtful artworks purchased at estate sales and flea markets on the walls), and then went out to explore.
The next surprise was the church on the plaza, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição. We entered from the side door, so were completely bowled over by the gorgeousness of the interior. Built in the 16th century in a Manueline style–the Portuguese national architectural form named for Manuel I, king at the time of its flourishing–the delightful ornamentation combined with fabulous early mudejar tilework, both narrative and decorative, make this a beautiful monument of Late Gothic/Early Renaissance transitional architecture.
When the Tourist Office opened at 2–so many places are closed for a long lunch in Portugal!–we went to ask how far the Casa Relvas was from the center of town, thinking it was some kilometers away. The nice woman there told us that it was only meters away from the main plaza. And indeed, a short walk brought us to this gem of the Aesthetic Movement era, designed and built by Carlos Relvas (1838-1894) himself, and set in a garden filled with plants that he had collected on his many travels.
From my preliminary search for information on Relvas, it was clear that he WAS an eccentric early photographer, but it was difficult to find any details in English. Coming up to his studio-house, a statue of the photographer at the entrance, based on one of his photographs, was the first indication of how eccentric he was. Who in the 19th century would photograph themselves bare-chested?
It turns out that he was from a very wealthy Golegã family–horse-breeders for generations, and owners of a huge property next to the present spot of his studio; the property had its own horse ring. He married into the nobility, and when this wife died, scandalized everyone by taking a much younger wife. Skilled as a horseman and bullfighter, he became a passionate amateur photographer in the 1850s, when photography was still often considered a gentleman’s hobby. Because he could afford it, he built this house in the early 1870s as a paean to the photographic arts, and began photographing in every genre.
He constructed the studio with ingenious pullies and enormous glass walls, to capture as much light as possible. The staircase was made of liana vinewood, and the studio still houses the original props he used in his portraits. A sign of his aristocratic status in Golegã is the amusing fact that he had separate entrances for his elite clients coming for a portrait sitting and the peasants that he paid with meals to pose for genre photos.
The house is now a museum, run by very amiable guides, who have created an introductory video with narration in about seven languages. The video is shown in a room in which they have attempted to liven things up by including an animatronic talking head of Relvas (he blinks and everything!) who narrates some of his life story:
After being amused by this presentation, and noticing the house’s details in celebration of the camera and the figures of Niepce and Daguerre, we were sufficiently impressed with Relvas’s accomplishments.
I am also simply amazed that this photographer is so little known outside of Portugal (and even here known by very few). I wasn’t even able to get an explanation for his most famous self-portrait, from 1870. It apparently has something to do with elaborate family dramas concerning his extravagances. His son, Jose Relvas, was more moderate than his father, becoming a beloved liberal politician; he proclaimed the first Portuguese Republic in 1910!
And his garden substantiates that he was in Australia! The guide, who also acts as archivist, says there are prints of the photos he took in Australia, and the immense eucalyptuses here are apparently grown from seeds he brought back from his travels.
Obviously, I will have to do something about this dearth of knowledge of this fascinating person. Another project, despite my lack of Portuguese…
After being so stimulated by our visit to Casa Relvas, we wanted to see a bit of the horses that make Golegã famous in horsey circles. (A link to information about the horse fair: http://lusitanoportal.com/fairs/golega/) The fair has been taking place here since the 18th century, and has been the center of stud farms for nearly as long. We walked to the main horse ring, but no one was performing. We did find one stable that was open, so that a group of school children could visit.
Outside the stables were streets and streets of the typical country houses of Portuguese villages, but here, because of the town’s prosperity and tourist venue, in much tidier shape than most houses we have seen.
What an enjoyable surprise this village became for us. Now we want to do some more exploring. And Carlos Relvas, you haven’t heard the last of me!