Lisbon's Ricardo Do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation

The Espírito Santo Silva Foundation is a priceless repository of artisanal skills that are found nowhere else in Europe today.

Off the Largo das Portas do Sol, a square commanding a clear view of the River Tagus in Lisbon, there's a gloomy, rather grottolike workshop. Passing by you wouldn't be likely to notice its doorway, and if you did, you wouldn't be tempted to enter. The ancient Romans believed that certain mysterious passages off nondescript streets led down to the underworld, and this portal arouses similar forebodings. Your infernal apprehensions might be increased if you came along at twilight, when a powerful-looking, swarthy man with moody eyes, savage eyebrows, and shoulder-length hair—a Vulcanic character in a work apron, with the muscular movements of a quarrier in the heart of mountains—can be glimpsed sweeping his stone floor. He is patient, sharp-eyed, and exceptionally methodical, but there's something peculiar in the way he handles his broom. Whereas ordinary mortals the world over sweep the dust out of their shops, into the gutter, he shepherds his piles of grime back into his atelier, where they will be tenderly gathered up and sifted. Bend down for a moment and you'll see why: Amid the colorless motes lie glittering specks of gold.

Fernando de Oliveira is a gold-beater—perhaps the last European master of that ancient art. Highly trained and perfectly disciplined, for four decades he's been pound- ing gold into gossamer-thin leafage. The gold belongs to the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation, an institute devoted to the preservation, restoration, and reproduction of antique works of decorative art, largely Portuguese. Espírito Santo owns much of the real estate around the Largo das Portas do Sol, where it's headquartered in Palácio Azurara—an Indian-red, 17th-century Baroque edifice. It buys its gold in ingots from the Portuguese National Bank, and the molten bullion, rolled into foil, is flattened by Oliveira into the finest gold leaf suitable for gilding furniture.

As you might suspect of one whose lot it is to bash, in cryptlike surroundings, the traditional medium of civilized wealth into almost heftless impalpability, Oliveira has his black humors. But he can also be smiling and expansive, as he was one dusky afternoon when he welcomed me into his shop. Demonstrating his stance at a sort of podium, half-pulpit, half-butcher block, he lifted his ancient, five-kilogram mallet and brought it down forcefully on a strip of gold. (A framed page from Diderot's Encyclopédie, hanging on the wall, disclosed no difference between Oliveira's implements and those used in mid-18th century France.) As in all the percussive trades—ironsmithing, conga-drumming, and the like—the essence of the gold-beater's art lies in the apportionment of exquisite controls to blows of brutal force. Handing me a palm-sized gold sheet, Oliveira explained how his leveling process would eventually spread it into a uniformly thin rectangle 64 times its original size. (One hundred grams yields over 5,000 palm-sized sheets.) Though he was nearing retirement, he told me, the workshop would remain in the family, as he had among his five apprentices a nephew and his own daughter, whom he had recently started to train in the use of a smaller, three-kilo mallet.

Palácio Azurara was acquired in 1947 by Ricardo Ribeiro do Espírito Santo Silva, a highly cultivated banker, philanthropist, art collector, and polyglot. Born in 1900, he would die relatively young, in 1955, but not before he'd remodeled the building to serve as the headquarters of his new foundation and house its Museu de Artes Decorativas. In time it would hold more than 1,300 pieces, including furniture, silver, carpets, paintings, bookwork, porcelain, faience, glazed tile panels, and other items; two years before his death he bequeathed all this to the nation. But Espírito Santo was more than a beneficent Maecenas; he was also a visionary committed to the historic preservation of crafts. His basic insight was simple, and accurate: It was that Portugal, an impoverished country with a medieval way of doing things, counted among its population many skilled craftsmen who could produce virtually anything in their chosen line. Though not since the early-19th century had they been asked to make much that was genuinely refined, these artisans were a marvelous pool of talent, crying out for patronage, and this was the goal to which Espírito Santo pledged himself.

The foundation's production of its own gold leaf is the most stunning example of its general philosophy. For the most part, only centuries-old processes, executed with replicas of 16th-century tools, are used in the numerous workshops spread around the Largo das Portas do Sol. In these frequently cramped surroundings, craftspeople repair and re-create examples of most of the traditional Portuguese arts (with the notable exception of glazed tile, which is still manufactured commercially). These trades include bookwork (comprising binding, marroquineria, or hot-embossing the leather, and gilding); decorative painting; Arraiolos, or the traditional flat-weaving of the province of Alentejo; all the skills of furniture-making, from carving and wood inlay to the sand-casting and chasing of brass mounts; and of course handmade 23-karat gold leaf, which ends up enriching almost everything.

Espírito Santo welcomes commissions for pieces based on its prototypes, but it will also restore clients' worn or damaged items, and it takes particular pride in its ability to match antique furniture and entire interiors. Many decorators have ordered whole ensembles from the foundation; it has contributed to the restoration of the boiseries of Madame du Barry's cabinet at Versailles, the bindings of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and various Lisbon embassies. The newly redecorated Four Seasons Ritz Hotel has five suites (32-34 series on floors six through 10) created by Espírito Santo. The Palácio de Seteais, the famed manor-turned-hotel at Sintra, outside Lisbon, is also filled with the foundation's marquetry furniture; the walls of its salons and bedrooms are invigorated by the style of decorative painting taught in the ateliers of Espírito Santo.

If you want to see what becomes of Fernando de Oliveira's vol-au-vent sheets of gold leaf, look into the galleylike studio of Graça Maria Jordão, the foundation's accomplished book and leather decorator. In the drifting silver light of her narrow realm off Palácio Azurara's inner court, her white work apron outlined against canyons of ancient rolls, fillets, and gouges—more than 2,000 of them—Jordão embosses and gilds damaged old bindings or newly ordered ones based on traditional patterns. Watching her at work, you understand the importance of her finishing tools; these gracile, tapered instruments, ending in cast-metal versions of Portuguese, French, and English decorative motifs (garlands, lozenges, rosettes), are based on the foundation's 400-year-old collection—one of the world's largest. With hands and chin, Jordão presses these tiny, heated wheels and stamps down into her leather bindings, using a mordant of egg white and vinegar; since her aim is to achieve a series of identical repeats, she must be aware at all times of the correct ratio between the heat of the tool and the amount of pressure required. The tolerances in such manual work are so slight that long acquaintance with a variety of handmade, well-aged tools is vital.

Jordão's creations appeal to buyers not only because they're so delicately made, but also because they're portable. Among her most simple bindings is a 16th-century pattern of imbricated gilded scales, made with two types of tooling on red shagreen (prices start at $800); a more indulgent late-18th-century binding with plenty of scrolls and garlands costs much more.

Oliveira's gold leaf also flutters about profusely in the ateliers where candlesticks, frames, galvanized furniture mounts, and decorative keyholes, handles, and pulls are gilded. When I visited Espírito Santo its sandcasting crew was up north on a study trip, so I missed the spectacle of all those ornamental volutes, rocailles, ribbons, and festoons being realized as negative shapes in hollow pig beds of volcanic sand. I did, however, see the end products. Candelabra, furniture mounts, and other brass or bronze fittings were being honed to perfection by young women plying almost microscopic chisels under the direction of the master ciseleur, Luís Manuel Neto Cristóvão. Each piece was placed on a stone covered with hot pitch, which holds the article steady under the shock of the hammer blows; then it was removed to be cleaned and gilded.

There is always quite a lot of this sort of metalwork and gilding going on, since the museum's collection, the source of its prototypes, is particularly rich in 18th-century furniture. And if you suspect you'd find the Louis XV and XVI styles too ornate to get along with your other possessions, Espírito Santo's offerings may prove a revelation. A comparison with the great holdings in French 18th-century furniture of the Gulbenkian Foundation (20 minutes away) will alert you to the provincial reserve of much Portuguese work (and of the quieter French material that once found its way to Lisbon). Your heart may even go out to one of Espírito Santo's gold-encrusted, marble-topped French tables or cabinets, which often boast almost folksy marquetry—bold floral patterns, balloonists aloft à la Montgolfier. These pieces sell for $13,900 to $35,000 apiece.

Espírito Santo is the only European firm capable of realizing historic reproduction on a vast scale and in so many media. Of necessity, the foundation trains its student artisans in its Arts and Crafts Institute; it also runs a museum school, the Higher School for Decorative Arts, which grants B.A. degrees in furniture and interior design. Yet the foundation does not make "copies" or "facsimiles"; rather than limiting itself—like ordinary reproduction houses—to outward appearances it repeats an entire assembly process, using only authentic materials. Nor does it produce "legitimate fakes," items that could be fobbed off by an unscrupulous middleman as genuine antiques: Although minor distressing may be carried out if requested, these creations have all the brilliance that antique furniture had when first made.

Fernando de Oliveira's leaf also ends up on many cabinets, though such gilding is, of course, a final process. Most of Espírito Santo's furniture-crafting operation has been installed in a vast, Piranesian interior a few blocks away from Palácio Azurara. Poke your nose in the door and you'll get a whiff of the 18th century. Under Francísco Saþde, the master cabinetmaker, and José-Manuel Pinto, the head polisher, the original assembly procedure has been maintained, including the measuring and drawing of antique pieces, the aging of woods, hand joinery and frame-construction, inlaying, and finally, the application of natural patinas. Here marquetry pieces are cut out of rare veneers with a tiny, pedal-operated jigsaw (positive and negative shapes are sawn together for a perfect fit) and then shaded by brief immersion in hot, nearly fluid volcanic sand. Marquetry of hairline precision is one of the foundation's glories: Its smallish inlaid tables— oval, square, or demilune, and all in the Portuguese "D. Maria I" style—are $4,850 to $9,150.

On my most recent visit to Lisbon I visited Espírito Santo almost every day and couldn't help but make certain observations of a quaint, perhaps slightly comical nature. The setting was as labyrinthine as a Moorish medina, with many instruments and dissociated furniture parts scattered everywhere. The clutter even seemed a product of natural history. Daunting forests of hanging chair legs; impenetrable jungles of cabinet doors or stiles; vast mesas of worktable surfaces littered with obscure devices: They made up their own geography.

More exotic than any of this, though, were the natives. The foundation's artisans are a splendid resource, and to be crude, a great selling point. Yet from the brooding, if also rather charming, Oliveira in his grotto to the tittering voices and sidelong glances of the weaving ladies in the carpet workshop, a fantastic, faunlike reticence—a sort of farouche diffidence—prevailed. Certain studios remained mysteriously off limits; I was rapidly hustled out of others; eye contact, especially with females of any age, might induce a sudden access of blushing and mortified laughter. What was there, I wondered, to be so shy about? Did the weavers feel that I, peeking over their shoulders, would somehow master the secrets of their trade? I felt like one of those famous Victorian travelers—Doughty, Burton, or Lane—trying to gain access to a harem; and I recalled that the peaceful "Carnation Revolution" of 1974, which ended some 50 years of authoritarian rule in Portugal, had widely evoked parallels between that tiny Iberian nation and a shuttered medieval nunnery.

Such metaphors are no longer in order; but surely one of the subtler pleasures of a visit to Espírito Santo lies in the sense of a return to the modesty of a precommercial era. In terms of industrial history, these superb craftspeople are Methuselahs. "I'm flattered by your interest," they seem to be saying, "but please let me get on with my little task. I've been at it, you know, for the last three hundred years."


Visiting the Foundation

Within a few minutes of entering Lisbon's Museu de Artes Decorativas, part of the Espírito Santo Silva complex, you realize that you're in one of Europe's most delightful small public art galleries—a place as cozy and slyly entertaining as, say, Sir John Soane's Museum in London or the Tyrolean Regional Heritage Museum in Innsbruck. The subtle merriment begins right alongside the grand staircase, where lifesized "welcoming figures"—halberdiers composed of glorious, blue-glazed tiles—stand in attitudes of extravagant hospitality. Housed in the four-story Palácio Azurara on the Largo das Portas do Sol, the museum is based on Ricardo Ribeiro do Espírito Santo Silva's personal collections. Consisting mostly of 17th- and 18th-century domestic pieces, which are often smallish and full of whimsy, these holdings are placed in period rooms—some of them quite intimate in scale.

This is the place to discover that old Portuguese faience is often explosively folksy and free; or that Portuguese furniture can have a strong Oriental flavor, a legacy of the Age of Exploration. Don't be surprised to see Hindu motifs eccentrically intertwined with memories of the Latin tradition of courtly love.

The museum is open Wed.-Mon. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. The foundation workshops can be visited during the same period by groups of 10 or fewer, provided application is made in writing three weeks in advance. Museu de Artes Decorativas, Largo das Portas do Sol 2; 351-1-886-2183.


Commissioning A Piece

Most pieces produced by the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation are reproductions of ones to be seen in the Museu de Artes Decorativas. The wisest course is to request a copy of the foundation's extensive full-color catalog and latest price list, then inspect the item you want at the museum. Having selected a piece, contact the foundation's public relations officer at 351-1-886-2183/4/5. The piece will probably have to be made to order, since the foundation's stock is not large. (The catalog is available by calling the same number.)

It is also possible to have furniture of your own copied. However, you'll have to have the piece shipped to Lisbon so it can be exactly drawn at the workshop.

The foundation's shop on the ground floor of the museum sells ready-made smaller items (for instance, bookwork and candlesticks).

Dan Hofstadter wrote about James Lord and Delacroix in Departures' September/October 1998 issue.