Primeira Exposição Colonial Portuguesa, First Portuguese Colonial Exhibition . Porto, 1934 . Fotografia Photo · Domingos Alvão
The relation between palm trees and Portuguese culture can be traced at least as far back as 1808, when John VI, then Prince of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, relocated the court to Brazil, fleeing the Napoleonic wars. That same year John VI established the ‘Royal Nursery’ garden – later to become the Botanic Garden of Rio de Janeiro – where in 1809 he himself planted the first seeds of imperial palm in Brazilian soil. These seeds were smuggled in from Mauritius by Portuguese merchant Luís Vieira e Silva, who had stopped at the island in transit from what was then the Portuguese State of India.
The dissemination of the imperial palm in Brazil expressed the tensions of class structure in what was then a Portuguese colony, just as it later would upon its arrival in Portugal. Owned by the royal family and a symbol of Portuguese aristocracy, the first seeds of this ‘Palma Mater’ were occasionally offered to selected noblemen for their services to the crown, but mostly burned to preserve the exclusiveness and status associated with this species. Naturally, such restriction only made the imperial palm more desirable in the eyes of the emerging Brazilian bourgeoisie. This soon gave rise to a black market for the seeds, with the supply controlled by the gardeners of the Royal Nursery. By the mid-nineteenth century the imperial palm was no longer an exclusive symbol of the aristocracy: it had also become a symbol of economic power, used for example as a trademark for the coffee barons’ properties of the Paraíba Valley.
Even more than most Portuguese cities, Porto was impacted by the flood of Brazilian immigration that followed the return of John VI and the court to Portugal in 1821 and Brazil’s independence soon afterward. Wealthy return migrants from Brazil settled in the eastern part of the city, away from the center, and initiated the urbanization of that district. Their unusually large mansions broke with the standard dimensions of the Porto plot and defined a new standard of luxury and status in the city. Imperial palms were also characteristic of these properties. As had been the case a few decades earlier in Brazil, the palms expressed a new urban and social tension – one related to the upsurge of a new bourgeoisie with a craving for visibility, which would reconfigure urban form and local class structure.
In time, as palm trees spread across the urban territory and social structure of Porto, they ceased to be a signifier of social tension and evolved into a collective symbol. The presence of palm trees in Porto spanned monarchic, republican, autocratic and democratic times. The palms spread into public space and institutional grounds, and were objects of propaganda in the First Colonial Exhibition, in 1934. After their ‘democratization’, they could be found in households of every socioeconomic class, in every neighborhood of the city.
Pervasive as they became, standing out from and above the cityscape, exotic among the local temperate flora, Porto palm trees shaped the collective memory of the city for two hundred years, and in so doing they acquired historical importance and the unofficial status of monuments. The arrival of the red palm weevil in Porto circa 2010 marked the beginning of a notorious process of urban transformation. The pest attacked a great number of the city palms, disfiguring a distinctive attribute of the urban landscape. But as the decline of these symbols anticipates their demise, the very process of rotting accentuates the palms’ monumentality.
The lifeless bodies of dried fibers stand out in their surroundings as they never did in their lush past, producing a powerful tension of decay that is breaking down the physical evidence of a culture, and thus questioning the identity of the city.
Ano year · 2016
Co-autores coauthors · Ursa - Luís Ribeiro da Silva, Margarida Quintã
Local location · Porto, Portugal