Quinta da Regaleira, Portugal: The mysterious garden designed by a world-famous set designer and architect

Between 1898 and 1912, one of the world’s most mysterious gardens was created by the opera and theatre designer Luigi Manini. Tim Richardson introduces us to its splendours and its probable symbolism. Photographs by Paul Highnam.

In 1893, one of the richest men in Portugal, Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, purchased a small estate at Sintra, just outside Lisbon. Quinta da Regaleira, first known as Quinta da Torre, was named after the Baroness de Regaleira, its owner from 1840. She had turned the property into a summmer retreat from Lisbon, erecting a new house and chapel on the steeply sloping site. Specimens of Araucaria (monkey-puzzle) that she planted still survive in the gardens.

Monteiro acquired the property with a view to commissioning a new house on the foundations of the existing building. However, having engaged an architect to draw up plans for a French neo-Gothic house, he abruptly changed his plans following a chance encounter with the opera- and theatre-set designer Manini on a train bound for Bussaco, where he was working on the Palace Hotel.

Quinta da Regaleira

The Hunting Room conveys the opulence of the original interiors

Much of the house has been reordered as a museum, but it is still possible to sense the ambition and opulence of the building from such surviving interiors as the Hunting Room, covered with carving, paintings and mosaic celebrating the chase. The gardens are, however, much more completely preserved.

Monteiro gradually acquired more land until the estate extended to about 10 acres, while Manini oversaw construction of an ambitious system of waterways (including five miles of aqueducts) to bring water into the estate from afar to feed the various pools and grotto features.

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Quinta da Regaleira

A neo-Manueline garden bench carved in the form of branches and ropes

Manini’s work at Regaleira can be characterised as neo-Manueline, the late-19th-century nationalist architectural movement that revived the forms of late-Gothic architecture in Portugal. This makes striking use of decoration in the form of twisted ropes, a reference to Portugal’s maritime prowess.

The garden spreads up a steep hillside along winding paths and asphalt roadways. There is little sense of a coherent plan, as the garden’s episodes appear in front of the visitor in quick succession – like scenes in an opera (indeed, many of the buildings appear to have ‘wings’). However, there is a certain unity to decoration and materials; Manini employed a team of stonemasons from Coimbra to realise the work. As a result, all of the garden’s features strike the visitor as variations on a theme.

Quinta da Regaleira

The Initiation Well.

The Promenade of the Gods extends most of the way along the flat terrace that runs along the long wall lining the Sintra road. Shaded by magnificent plane trees, it is lined with statues – salvaged from Palacio Foz in Lisbon – representing Greek/Roman deities, including Ceres, Flora, Bacchus and Pan. At its far end is the Labyrinthic Grotto, built around a pool that is thought to have been in existence when Monteiro arrived. A short tunnel system through the grotto arcades that edge it provides the visitor with a frisson of what is to come.

A little way uphill is Leda’s Grotto, a circular room set at the base of what looks like the entrance to a castellated fort. Built-in planters containing aspidistra line the space, which is focused on a demure white-marble figure of Leda (the swan lurking at her feet). Adjacent is Monteiro’s Greenhouse, where he grew or over-wintered tender subjects.

The visitor can climb up into the ‘fort’ above Leda’s Grotto by means of a spiral staircase inside one of its towers, from whence the first of numerous fine vistas can be enjoyed.
The castellated façade proves to be the frontage for yet another terrace, shaded by chestnut and lime trees, augmented in spring by the bright colours of the camellias and azaleas that were planted in the garden in the 1950s – and which potentially detract somewhat from its mysterious air.

Quinta da Regaleira

The promenade sweeps towards the house

More towers and spires beckon from up the hill, most noticeably a zigguratic tower that is the garden’s highest point. The spectacular Lake of the Waterfall is soon discovered at its foot. This exciting, grotto-like feature is essentially a vast pile of rocks overlooking a lake with stepping stones and a cascade, with a subterranean cavern below. This is a nexus of the garden’s tunnel system, linking the two ‘initiation wells’, Regaleira’s most celebrated and spectacular features.

Each of the wells has its own distinct character. The 33ft-deep Unfinished Well, entered via a tunnel leading to the west, has rough stone walls running with water, a roundel of tree-fringed sky visible far above. To the east, the Initiation Well, some 90ft deep, is entered from either the top or the bottom. Spiral steps wind around the well’s circumference, with nine landings and thin pilasters supporting elegant arches.

When the visitor reaches the top of the well, there is a surprise in that it is not a ‘tower’ at all, as most of its height is built into the hillside. The entrance to the well at the top level is afforded by means of a massive stone slab on a hinge, which acts as a disguised door – a delicious subterfuge.

Quinta da Regaleira

The spire of the chapel dominates the garden. Beyond is the fantastical outline of the house

There are several other entrances to the tunnel system, notably the Grotto of the East, inspired by Manini’s set design for Verdi’s Macbeth (it features a cauldron) and the Portal of the Guardians, a monumental castellated exedra with twin towers and a central rotunda, beneath which is an unsettling sculpture of a pair of snarling, crocodile-like creatures. If the garden at Regaleira is to be understood as an initiatory journey, then these beasts are just one more obstacle to be overcome on the route towards enlightenment and salvation.

Which brings us to the central question concerning Regaleira. Is there a coherent symbolism underlying this disconcerting array of features and symbols? Or is it a theme park of esoterism with no under-lying rationale?

The key is the Chapel, which is set apart, physically and architecturally, from the rest of the garden. It occupies a privileged position at a low level near the house and is the only garden feature that must unavoidably be encountered by visitors.

Manini conceived it in the neo-Manueline manner in 1904. The interior decoration is, in the main, liturgically conventional, with scenes depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary.  There are, however, several less familiar decorative motifs here, chief of which is the distinctive red cross of the Order of Christ (which can also be found on the floor of the Initiation Well and at other places in the garden).

Quinta da Regaleira

The castellated walls of the Portal of the Guardians

It can be seen on the exterior, above the entrance to the chapel, in the mosaic floor and in some of the carved decoration, most noticeably in the ceiling of the entrance hall, where it is set with a triangle, a stylised sunburst and the Eye of Providence.

The use of such motifs has strengthened the contention that the garden contains Freemasonic symbolism, although this assertion is not justified; the symbol of the Eye of Providence was not unique to Freemasonry. There is no evidence that Monteiro himself was a Freemason – indeed, ‘the craft’ was linked with republicanism in Portugal as it was in the rest of mainland Europe, which would have been anathema to Monteiro, as an ardent monarchist.

What is significant is the repeated use of this red cross of the Order of Christ, a quasi-monastic society founded in 1319, just seven years after the suppression of the Knights Templar by Pope Clement V. In its earliest incarnation, the Order of Christ is understood to be the old Knights Templar of Portugal, reconstituted by the King under a new name.

The red cross of the order became a symbol of Portugal’s dominance during the age of imperial expansion  – it was emblazoned on the sails of Henry the Navigator (a grand-master of the order) and Vasco da Gama (another senior member). All of this was celebrated in Camões’s great patriotic poem of exploration, The Lusiads (1572). (Monteiro owned a significant collection of material related to Camões.)

Quinta da Regaleira

The Lake of the Waterfall is the nexus of the garden’s tunnel system

For patriotic, conservative monarchists such as Monteiro, symbolism associated with the Order of Christ was a potent way of honouring Portugal’s glorious past and the old order associated with it.

Monteiro imaginatively extended and enriched the symbolism of the Order of Christ by introducing into the garden the concept of symbolic ‘inititiation’ into a Templar-like society.

There are many stories around Templar initiation rites, but the most enduring is that the initiate was required to undertake a symbolic journey in a forest environment, experiencing hardship and disorientation along the way. The rituals of Continental Freemasonry have drawn on this tradition.

Such ideas, derived from Order of Christ and Templar lore (as opposed to 18th- and 19th-century Freemasonry), were physically enacted by Monteiro in the chapel crypt, which is almost bare excepting no fewer than four crosses of the Order of Christ and a large sepulchral stone. Additionally, a short tunnel leads into this chamber from outside – and also connects with the house – as an alternative to the spiral staircase from the chapel above.

If one imagines the rest of the garden as a confusing and disturbing labyrinth to be experienced by ‘initiates’, then the chapel crypt marks the climax of that journey. Even for someone who has not been blindfolded, the question of what is up and what is down soon becomes a moot point in this garden, as spatial disorientation arguably becomes its chief characteristic.

Quinta da Regaleira

The grotto inspired by Manini’s haunt of the witches in his set for Macbeth

There is no evidence that Templar-inspired ‘intitiations’ ever took place at La Regaleira – indeed, if one views Monteiro’s use of symbolism as a cultural metaphor, there is no reason at all to imagine it may have done. Like Sir Francis Dashwood in England, who convened the celebrated ‘Hellfire Club’ chiefly as a way of satirising the prurience of his political adversaries (there is no evidence his club ever existed in actuality), so it seems that Monteiro was utilising the Order of Christ and other esoteric lore partly as a commentary on the condition of Portugal at the turn of the 20th century.

The period 1890 to 1910 was one of the most intense in the country’s political history. Republicanism had been on the rise since the 1870s and, in 1889, the monarchy was deposed in Brazil. In Portugal, radical republicans assassinated the King and his heir in Lisbon in 1908 and, two years later, a republic was established. The Order of Christ was summarily abolished in both countries.

It is likely Monteiro chose Sintra itself because of its long association with the Portuguese royal family, as well as with the Crusaders and Knights Templar. The 8th-century Sintra Castle was a key strategic point and the Templars themselves were granted significant landholdings in and around the town in the 12th century (lands that later came into the ownership of the Order of Christ).

The long, castellated walls that are a feature of the garden’s terraces might be viewed as an homage to Crusader history and Monteiro’s references to the Order of Christ has a political dimension, as a riposte to the anti-clericalism of the republican movement.

Monteiro was not some Lusitanian Aleister Crowley and the esoteric symbolism at Regaleira never seems sinister. In fact, it is rather polite and restrained compared with, for example, the full-blooded Rosicrucian rituals being enacted at this time. Monteiro was a rich man – a philanthropist and not a politician – using the decoration of his house and garden to make a cultural statement about the destruction of a world order he held dear.

W. B. Yeats, that other nationalist romantic with esoteric interests, observed of civilisation in the throes of early-20th-century modernity, that ‘the centre cannot hold’. For Monteiro and other conservative patriots, the very centre of their world was threatened at a time of incipient chaos. The King had been killed and a republic loomed. Quinta da Regaleira can be read as a warning about the imminent disintegration of a cherished world order and the hope of a return to righteous leadership.

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