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Dona Maria II National Theatre, Lisbon

The Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II is the national theatre of Portugal. The beautiful neoclassical front façade dominates the northern side of Rossio square in central Lisbon. Today the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II host some of the most spectacular performances of Lisbon but the history regarding the building and location has not always been so enchanting or fortunate.

Rossio square

The grand Dona Maria II National Theatre, Lisbon

The Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II was built in 1846 on the site of the old Palácio dos Estaus palace. The Palácio dos Estaus was initially constructed in 1450 and was used by the Portuguese royal family to host foreign dignitaries and noblemen visiting Lisbon.

History of the Dona Maria II National Theatre

The history and reputation of the Palácio dos Estaus descended into dread and fear during the 16th century and the reign of King john III as the palace was used as the base for the Portuguese inquisitions.

From the state rooms of the palace, men and women were sentence to death, while in the back rooms prisoners were tortured to extract forced confessions which would implicate others as heretics. During the early 19th century the constraints of theatre and literature imposed both by the Portuguese royalty and the influential Catholic Church were loosened and there was an explosion of liberal thinking which is considered part of the liberal revolution.

There was suddenly more writers and actors with audiences willing to view and pay. Lisbon pre 1830 had no suitable venue for the royalty and higher classes to watch the new breed of actors, so under the direction of Queen Maria II the national theatre was constructed. The Palácio dos Estaus, which had survived the 1755 earthquake, had burnt down during a fire in 1836 so it was agreed that the theatre be built in place of the old palace.

Dona Maria II National Theatre, Lisbon

The view of Rossio square and the theatre

The initial plans were draw in 1836 and an Italian architect, Fortunato Lodi, was chosen to design the theatre which was heavily influenced by the neoclassical style of architecture. At the front of the theatre are six massive columns that were rescued from the Saint Francis Convent of Lisbon which had been badly damaged during the earth quake of 1755.

The tympanum of the pediment was decorated with a relief sculpture depicting Apollo and the Muses while the roof was topped by a statue of the Portuguese play writer Gil Vicente. The original interior of the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II was decorated with works and murals by influential Portuguese and European artists. The main theatre, the Garrett room, was lined with the most sumptuous materials and drapes.

Rossio square lisbon

The Praça Dom Pedro IV square in Lisbon

The theatre was a stunning and regal building completely suited to be the royal theatre but it had taken a whole 10 years before for the royal inauguration in 1846. The first performance to be hosted in the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II was by the Portuguese Renaissance play writer Gil Vicente (1464-1536). During the inquisition many of Gil Vicente’s plays were banned and readers or performers could find themselves facing punishment at the court housed with the Palácio dos Estaus, which had been converted into the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II.

All of the original interior and much of the exterior was damaged by a massive fire in 1964. The restoration project was completed in 1978 and faithfully restored the original designs. Since the 1978 the main Garrett room has been hosting the finest examples of Portuguese theatre and productions.

There is a guided tour of the theatre and the back stage area every Monday at 11:30, tickets for this must be pre booked by the previous Friday and cost 6€ for the 1 hour tour. Tickets may be purchased from the main ticket office which also displays the latest listings and performances.

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