There are numerous testimonies of the constant repair work suffered by the buildings and stained glass windows of the Monastery of Batalha, throughout its long existence. However, upon extinction and the status of monument, the idea of restoring will emerge as an act of bringing back the buildings to a more original, a purer state. Batalha would be the first great site in Portugal to be object of major restoration, from the end of 1840 onwards.
One day in November 1836, when the King consort, Fernando II, was passing by the Monastery on his way north, he became deeply upset on seeing the advanced state of disrepair of such a magnificent structure. Returning to the capital, he impressed upon government agencies the need to find a way to restore the monument. In November 1840, six years after the extinction of the religious orders, the restoration of the Monastery of Batalha began to take shape under the auspices of the inspector general of Public Works, Luís da Silva Mouzinho de Albuquerque. Work on the vast site dragged on until the beginning of the 20th century, shaped by the ideas of the time which would irreversibly determine our notions of architecture and landscape.
The restoration done at Batalha was the brainchild of Mouzinho de Albuquerque, even if he was officially removed from the post of inspector general of Public Works at the end of 1843, for political reasons. Joaquim Guilherme Rebelo Palhares, appointer (what we would call project manager, today) would from the start of restoration to his death in 1852 be in charge of the construction site. That same year, architect Lucas José dos Santos Pereira would be nominated as master builder to Batalha until his death in 1884. He would be replaced by master builder José Augusto Fragoso, up till the end of the century.
The restoration work carried out in the 19th century at Batalha – the most dramatic of all – was decisive for the future of the monument, if in a somewhat paradoxical way. On the one hand, the integrity of the Gothic and Manueline buildings was kept intact. On the other, it was enough to extinguish once and for all the memory of the Mannerist, Baroque convent, thus facilitating the wiping out of the urban fabric which had sprouted around the Monastery’s construction. Ultimately, the 19th century restoration is a still pertinent lesson on how any architectural or landscape intervention is always a product of its time.
Such an interest in mediaeval construction appealed to the time’s romantic, liberal ideas in literature and in the revivalist tendencies that were gaining traction in architecture, reflected in then-current artistic theories based on either the possibility of reviving architectural styles, or the irrevocable, natural death of what at the time seemed dated. And so, besides the entire demolition of two cloisters and their dependencies, built from 1552 onwards, Batalha endured certain stylistic ‘corrections’ such as, for example, the introduction of platibands, or flat mouldings, where previously they had not existed, or the total reconfiguration of the interior and exterior façades of the Cloister of King Afonso V for them to seem more ‘gothic looking’. The description of the property published by James Murphy in London between 1792 and 1795, was an influential document when it came to the direction the restoration work at Batalha would take, not only as a testament of what had already been lost, but also as a pointer to certain aesthetic solutions.
The picture we have today inherited of the Monastery of Batalha is a direct result of how we once in the 19th century perceived such monuments, divorced from their urban and rural contexts: the knocking down of buildings considered at that time to be ‘of no value’ has created dead zones in their surroundings which have endured to this day, heightening problems with spatial relationships and resulting in the depopulation of the periphery of the Monastery. This practice would be especially rife even during the 1960s.
How we in the twentieth century were to intervene in the structure, as it had been left to us by 18th century restorers, would follow one of two paths: either, firstly, in accordance with the past we sought to eliminate Mannerist or baroque ‘contaminations’ from the medieval blueprint, such as, for example, various stone altars and gold leaf carving, whether painted or plain; or we took another way, that of respecting the site as a historical and aesthetic document, opting instead to conserve and restore.