Behind the recently restored Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha sits what most people consider to be a kids’ attraction. But this playground of miniature monuments, tiny houses & museum displays from around the world—Portugal dos Pequenitos—was designed to do a lot more than entertain children. Built under the Salazar regime from 1937 to 1961 by architect Cassiano Branco, this compact display of the best of Portugal transmits a message that few people understand today.
National context • Portugal developed into a modern nation during the period from 1880 to 1930. By all counts, a very intense period. The king was assassinated, a republic put in the monarchy’s place, new symbols were adopted & historical rediscovery was underway. The unstated goal: formation of a new identity & culture. Fernando Bissaya Berreto (photo below, right) grew up during this tumultuous period. As a doctor, he developed a social conscious & happened to be in the right place at the right time. While attending medical school in Coimbra, he became an admirer of future dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (photo below, left). They remained friends for life.
Timing • In the late 1930’s, preparation began for the 1940 Exposição do Mundo Português. Worthy of a future post, let’s just say for now that it was a big event, full of Fascist architecture, & celebrated Portugal’s presence in world history. Bissaya Berreto wanted a small piece of that expo in Coimbra & proposed the idea of a smaller version for children. With Salazar’s approval, Cassiano Branco began the 24-year project.
Major monuments from the entire nation were constructed in miniature. Regional models for houses were built kid-size… there’s more than one type of casa portuguesa. Explorations took center stage & information about overseas territory highlighted Portugal’s contact with the world, mainly in Asia & Africa:
Social context • Inspired by Maria Montessori, Portugal dos Pequenitos meant to instill national pride in children, teaching them about different regions along with national heritage monuments. It was even attached to the first Casa da Criança built by Bissaya Berreto, modeled on Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini. Care was taken to place electrical sockets out of reach of children—a novelty for the time—and treat them as rational, mini-adults. By exposing them to Portuguese history, Bissaya Berreto intended to give the next generation a new identity.
Although popular as ever with school groups, many adults who visited the site as children now feel a sense of disgust because of the clear association with Salazar. No doubt, Portugal dos Pequenitos owes its existence to the dictator & its architectural style reinforces that fact. But it represents so much more. The idea of giving children a sense of pride in their nation was new in 20th-century Portugal. Even Spain was going through a similar identity crisis at the same time, just after the Spanish-American War.
So as a national theme park, it can’t be beat. Besides, it’s fun to walk through & see how many monuments you can identify. The standard tourist circuit for Portugal was defined at the same time, so there’s everything from the Arco do Triunfo in Lisboa to the Torre dos Clérigos in Porto. But the map of the discoveries below says it all with a quote from the epic “Os Lusíadas” by Camões: E, se mais mundo houvera, lá chegara… And if more of the world existed, we would arrive there.
Feel the pride.
José Manuel Fernandes, “Português Suave: Arquitecturas do Estado Novo,” IPPAR (2003).
Salazar photo, Centro de Documentação Bissaya Barreto, released 2010.
Silva, Cristina Emília R. e, “Portugal Pequenino,” Resdomus, Grupo FCT Atlas da Casa, Centro de Estudos de Arquitectura e Urbanismo (2010).
Ana Tostões, ed., “Arquitectura Moderna Portuguesa: 1920-1970,” IPPAR (2004).