Going through the side door of the Church of Nossa Senhora do Loreto, on Misericórdia Street, in Chiado, is like being teleportated to Italy. Opened for worship in 1522, the church was built by Italian merchants in Lisbon, who always took care of it. Here, 500 years later, one can still hear the language of Dante Alighieri.
The President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is a long-time regular presence at the Loreto Church.
For twenty years now the Loreto sacristy has been used by Father Francesco Temporin, a priest from Padua. Those who see the sacristy for the first time are so enchanted that they just want to stop and contemplate every detail: the Italian marble of the church, the richly painted ceiling, the furniture in pau-brazil, Italy in Lisbon.
Open for confession every weekday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 4 pm to 7:30 pm, many people seek forgiveness for their sins at the Nossa Senhora do Loreto Church. However, its role as a meeting place for the Italian community in Lisbon has been lost, even though the Italian community has kept growing in the city, exceeding the French and the Spaniards.
Nevertheless, some Italians still show up on Sundays, at 11:30 am, to attend the service in their native language.
And even today, Loreto’s main position, the Rector, is held by an Italian. There are rules that have been preserved since 1518, when Italian merchants, seduced by the wealth of commerce in the Portuguese capital, got together to found a Church of the “Italian Nation”, directly dependent on Rome.
Of course, the Portuguese Church, zealous of its tributes and power, never looked kindly at the status of Loreto. However, this was the time of King Manuel I, of elephant races in the streets of Lisbon, of gold with cinnamon scent, of embassies, parading rhinos in the Holy See, all softened by the good relations between the King and the Pope – and by the money from the Portuguese crown.
This is what Nunziatella Alessandrini, an Italian historian from Bellaria-Igea Marina, on the Adriatic coast, explains.
What brought her to the city in 1995 was her love for a Portuguese man. She married, divorced, and fell in love all over again when she discovered this piece of home over two thousand kilometers away – the distance between Lisbon and Italy.
Nunziatella studied German Literature and Language, but love led her to discover the Camões’ language and Nuno Bragança’s (another portuguese author) books.
She also got lost in the Loreto Archives and found half a millennium of Italian history untold. Her research at CHAM – a portuguese history investigation center at Nova University – has earned her the high honor of “Ufficiale dell’Ordine Della Stella d’Italia”, awarded by the President of the Italian Republic in 2022.
Nunziatella Alessandrini is one of more than 30 thousand Italians living in Portugal, according to the oficial Immigration Report 2021. The Italians are already the fourth largest community in the country and the first in the European Union.
This was not the case when Nunziatella arrived in 1995. “We were about 2,500 Italians,” she recalls.
For the scholar, there is a reason for this wave: “The benefits that the Portuguese government gives to Italian pensioners. In Italy, they pay very high taxes, but here we have full retirement, a benefit that extends for ten years.”
This situation is not new, as Lisbon has long been considered a golden goose by the Italians.
“Chiado was Italian”
It was also in search of profit that the first Italians arrived in the city of Lisbon back in the Middle Ages, a demand that increased with the “Atlantic expansion” and the promotion of Lisbon’s port to one of the crucial centers in the Old Continent.
Thus, the “head of the kingdom” was full of merchants, especially the Florentines and Genoese. The wealthiest had “trading houses” and some even managed to attain Portuguese nobility, through marriage.
The Encarnação Church itself, in Chiado, just in front of Loreto’s Church, was founded by the Countess of Pontével, a descendant of Italians. Nunziatella jokes: “Chiado was Italian”.
It is not an innocent statement.
Giraldi. Bardi. Affaitati. Marchionni.
These are Italian families, some still with descendants in Portugal, wealthy, connected to the purchase of the site for the Loreto Church. In 1518, this was a “bush area” and the Italian construction boosted the urban development of what is now the heart of Lisbon.
All that area belonged to the city limits, surrounded by the high Walls from the time of the King Fernando I. Through the dimly lit hallway that connects the sacristy to the central nave, the wall takes on a different texture and color: “It’s part of the Walls of Lisbon. It’s right inside the church,” the historian says. ” To me, it’s surprising. The Church is built right next to the Wall.”
A white, lighted hallway is the antechamber of the Archive where Nunziatella Alessandrini works.
Thousands of documents are stored there, bearing witness to half a millennium of the Italian presence in Lisbon. There are books with registrations of all the Italians who went to confession before Easter and where they lived, which allow us to trace the geography of the community in the city.
It was not only merchants who were part of it. There were also booksellers and printers – and many more. The Encarnação zone, Nova de Almada Street, Alecrim Street, and Camões Square areas were true Italians’ enclaves.
They had book stores, and stores selling fabrics, precious stones, and even “umbrellas made from whalebones”.
Italian money ensured that Loreto was one of the richest churches in Lisbon and that it could be rebuilt after fires and the 1755 earthquake. To maintain it, every Italian in Lisbon paid “a quarter of a ducat for every hundred he earned,” explains the researcher.
And it was also with the capital in mind that Loreto was built, Nunziatella considers. “The documentation suggests that the purpose was both religious and secular. They were businessmen and wanted a place to get together and take care of business.”
Still, they dedicated it to the Loreto’s Virgin, a frequent cult in Italy but uncommon in Portugal in the XV century, although it later spread to other parts of the country.
Even nowadays in Alcafozes, in the municipality of Idanha-a-Nova, in the center of Portugal, inlan, in late August, there are festivities dedicated to Nossa Senhora do Loreto, with the presence of the Portuguese Air Force.
After all, we are before the patron saint of aviation.
“The idea of an Italian Nation is born outside Italy” and Lisbon is one of the birthplaces
The Loreto Church’s ceiling, in Chiado, tells a little of the history of the Virgin of Loreto, represented above a house. Before the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land at the end of the 13th century, the house where Mary lived disappeared.
It is believed that the three-walled house (because it was built next to a cave) was carried through the air by angels to the Italian town of Loreto for her protection. Even today the Italian town is a place of pilgrimage and veneration.
The most surprising thing of all is that the foundation of the Church of Loreto is intended for the “Italian Nation,” as the documentation states. It will take more than 300 years, until 1861, for Italy to be born as a country and a united political identity.
In the XV century, the Italian Peninsula was a mosaic of states and dialects, a terrain of rivalries and palace intrigues, of disunity and competition. There were principalities, duchies, such as Milan or Savoy, the Florence of the Medici, the Republic of Venice, kingdoms such as Naples, and the interests and domains of Francis I of France and Charles V.
It is, thus, a “historical error” to speak of Italians until 1861.
“In July, the Olisiponese Studies Office, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of D. Manuel I, asked me to talk about the king’s relationship with Italy. To do so, you have to differentiate between the relations with Florence, Genoa, Venice, and Milan”, the historian says.
But in 1518, in Lisbon, the differences gave way to unity, which for the historian is fascinating: “The Italian Nation was born outside of Italy. It’s the first time I find this expression in documents, and it shows the union that didn’t exist in the homeland.”
The walls’ appearance of the room where the historian is working expresses the oblivion to which the Loreto Church has been consigned in recent years. Far from being the “agglutinating pole” of the Italian community that it once was, many Italians are unaware of this piece of Italy in Portugal, says Nunziatella Alessandrini.
Still, Father Francesco Temporin emphasizes there are more Italians attending Sunday Mass, the only one in Italian throughout the week. But the Church itself, not being a parish, does not have Sunday School, which would create a greater sense of community. “It is a Church of confessions,” Nunziatella explains.
The historian recalls that “today the interests are different” and religion is in crisis: “The young people I talk to are not very interested, but it may be that one day Loreto will once again be the center of the Italian community.”
The Italian Embassy in Portugal explains that this community in Lisbon is mainly formed by “retired people”, who arrive “in large numbers” to “benefit from tax benefits” and the “quality of life in the country”.
The young Italians in Lisbon, on the other hand, are mostly “digital nomads, entrepreneurs, and students” looking for an international experience with an expiration date.
A piece of Italy in Portugal waiting for a museum
Despite this, it is the Italians in Lisbon who continue to maintain the Loreto Church, as they have since the XVI century. And if Italy is the land of emperors, here it is a Junta, an assembly of important members of the Italian community in Lisbon, that decides on budgets and programming.
The Rector, Father Francesco Temporin, the Provider, Giuseppe Nigra, of Italian descent and Ambassador of the Order of Malta in Portugal, and three other Italian professors, including historian Nunziatella Alessandrini, are part of the group, along with a representative of the Italian Embassy.
This is because Loreto is a piece of Italy in Portugal, dependent on the Embassy, and, in this half millennium of History, the Italians left an immense legacy, which Nunziatella can’t organize by herself. “In the archive, there are many pearls. What is missing is a museum. Let’s see if we can propose a project to the Santa Casa da Misericórdia.”
Inside a cupboard she has in the archive room, the historian keeps a piece that cries out for restoration: it is a portable altar, from around the 17th century, with gold details. No matter how hard she tries, the corners are still filled with paintings, some already restored, of the King of Savoy, an 18th century Piedmont benefactor, and in the background, already on the wall, a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Its unfortunate people don’t see this,” Nunziatella says, pausing to tell a story that illustrates the ignorance about the Italian presence in Lisbon.
“In 2019, the Museum of Lisbon organized the exhibition ‘Lisboa Plural‘, about foreign communities in the city. I was asked how big the Italian trace was,” she tells, pausing and smiling.
Is there still any doubt there is an Italian Lisbon?
You can read this article in Portuguese.
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