Evora: Portugal’s Ancient Jewel

While tourist herds flock to the Disney-like Sintra, Evora remains to be the real deal and the perfect destination for a memorable daytrip (or two). Once the residence of the Portuguese kings, its UNESCO-listed historic centre has more to offer than just azulejos and whitewashed facades.

The Cathedral is the logical starting point, given its monumentality and the impressive views from its top. A gothic treasure, its interior features a full spectrum of styles including Manueline Renaissance and Baroque, but the most impressive treat is the view from the pinnacle-studded top.

From the Roman era, the Diana Temple is an impressive first-century structure with massive Corinthian columns. As serene as it is, the square where the Temple is located suddenly emanates an eerie feeling when you remember that it came to be surrounded by institutions and offices of the Inquisition.

Other obligatory visits include the University of Evora, the Silver Water Acquiduct and several churches, the most incredible of which is the Capella dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). As we walked into the Chapel, one could read on the entrance: “We, the bones here, await yours!”

Inside, the shock is inevitable: thousands of bones and countless skulls excavated from a cemetery form the walls and the pillars of the chapel, arranged in perfect order. The Chapel was built by the Franciscan during the heat of the Counter-Reformation, and serves as a memento mori (reminder of death). The poem below –on one of the Chapel’s pillars- says it better:

“Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
(…) If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.”
Fr. António da Ascenção

The City – Constantine Cavafy

“When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.” – From Ithaca by Cavafy

Most poetry lovers would recognize the name of Constantine Cavafy in correlation with his masterpiece, the immortal ‘Ithaca’. The Greek poet who spent most of his life in Alexandria showed a clear ‘Hellenistic’ imprint in his writings.

A few years ago, I stood in the balcony (photo below) of Cavafy’s house in Alexandria (house/museum). I stood there alone, then came an old man who stood next to me and started reciting beautiful verses. When he finished, I asked him what that poem was, and he told me it was The City by Cavafy. I will never forget that poem, and I invite you to do read and reflect:

“You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these very same houses.
You will always end up in this city.
Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.”

The view from Cavafy's House in Alexandria

Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’

“Everyone who sees her
-even if too late to see her alive –
will say: that suffices for us
to understand what is nature
and what art.”
– Bernardo Bellincioni, poet at the court of Ludovico Sforza

Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), about 1488

There is nothing innocent about even the most innocent looking of Da Vinci’s paintings. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is a perfect example. What seems to be the portrait of a young lady holding an ermine is nothing other than the outer expression of an intricate system of symbols.

Identified as Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Milan’s powerful Ludovico Sforza, she is posing while holding a white-furred ermine. Why an ermine? The reasons are many, even though it is impossible to know what Da Vinci had in mind exactly:

First, ermines are famed for their reserved appetite (if they get too fat, they can’t slip through burrows to chase their preys) and hence are symbols of moderation. Cecilia, a refined lady of good taste and a poetess, is a moderate, self-contained character, even though she did not bear noble blood.
Second, legend had it that ermines would rather give in to their hunters than risk spoiling their pure white fur. Cecilia is pure at heart, despite being Ludovico’s mistress. Quite appropriate, bearing in mind that Sforza sponsored Da Vinci.
Third, ermines are lustful, they are symbols of childbirth, and yes, Cecilia bore Sforza’s son. Of course we cannot see her belly, obscured entirely by the ermine and by her hands.
Fourth, Ludovico, having received the Order of the Ermine from the King of Naples, had the nickname of ‘Ermellino Bianco” or White Ermine. She is actually ‘holding’ her beloved Ludovico.

But there is more to this, and the image below explains it better.