The Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas traces its origins back to the period of the Renaissance, when someone – very probably Francisco d’Ollanda – gathered together around the hermitage of São Miguel a considerable number of epigraphic stones found amongst the Roman ruins which at that time were still very apparent in the neighbourhood.
More recently, in 1955, Sintra Town Council launched, by initiative of Joaquim Fontes, what was at that time a great innovation: the construction, in a rural area, of a small museum which would bring together once more, in Odrinhas, the antiquities that had been dispersed, as well as others which had been discovered meanwhile.
The present-day Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, inaugurated in 1999, is an architectural project by Alberto Castro Nunes & António Maria Braga, with consulting by Léon Krier, and museological programme by José Cardim Ribeiro. This new space embraces the legacy of its two primordial preceding institutions. From the former, it inherited the humanist and cosmopolitan spirit so typical of the Renaissance. From the latter it received the privileged links to its location and to the rural population of the Sintra area.
It would seem an impossible dream to bring together in harmony two apparently contradictory themes: the “local” roots of the museum and the fertility and strength of its branches, which stretch beyond the borders of Portugal.
But the contradiction is more apparent than real. For thousands of years Sintra benefited from dense and diversified settlement by peoples of varied origins and cultural traditions and each of these left behind not only many material relics of its presence but also the essence of its personality, in an ongoing process which little by little constructed the singular cultural heritage of the area.
Finis terrae – the edge of the ancient world, the countryside around present-day Sintra – was an area of interchange between the Atlantic north and the Mediterranean south, very close to the Tagus estuary and the great metropolis which had flourished there since early times. Its multifaceted landscape, rich in market gardens, stretching from the Sacred Mountain, rising up from the ocean, to the hills of Lisbon and the heights of Mafra, encircles a series of corn-growing plateaux cut across by deep river valleys. The Sintra area abounds in monuments and archaeological remains of every period, not in monotonous and obvious sequence but more in the style of a polychrome mosaic rich in the most varied motives, which unexpectedly cross and merge, as though here the histories of Europe and of the Mediterranean converge and synthesise.
Sintra is thus a genuine and many-sided showcase of the archaeology, history and traditions of many peoples and many periods.
The locality itself is cosmopolitan, facilitating our task of projecting its image. The collections at the São Miguel de Odrinhas Archaeological Museum are further proof of this statement.
The hundreds of Roman inscriptions and carved stones in the Museum, all of local origin, show the influence of Italian, North African, oriental and Paleo-Hispanic styles as well as less frequent signs of other origins. The vigorous lintels of a singular Visigothic – or “Visigothist” – church are Syrian in style although they bear Latin inscriptions. The many dozens of mediaeval headstones bear, side-by-side, the cross and the signo-saimão, the concentric circles of the world and the two triangles of the six-pointed star. Even the only three Etruscan tombs which exist in Portugal have come to rest here, fruit of the choice of Sintra as the “lost paradise” of the Romantic period: They were brought from Italy more than a hundred and fifty years ago and were placed in the gardens of Monserrate, where they were seen simply as ornaments in the antique style, before finally coming to the museum of Odrinhas as archaeological remains of prime importance in the Portuguese museological world.
The Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas is, on various levels, a “manifesto” for Humanism and Tolerance. We believe that the cultural riches of humanity rest, essentially, in their diversity and that no culture has the right to impose itself on others. We believe, too, that otium can be fecundum – that leisure time can lead to creativity and the enrichment of the human spirit. In this context it may be mentioned that the Portuguese word for business, “negócio”, comes from a negative: neg-otium. We also believe in the values of Tolerance, and we see Tradition as a continual source of renewal of identity and not as a tormented longing for bygone days.
The architectural style chosen for the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas is courageous because it breaks away from current fashion and does not fear condemnation by the main international “schools” of its time. It might be called the expression of a “daring classical revival”, that is, a cross between the erudite language of its classical heritage and the language of the traditional building styles of the region where it stands. But in the final analysis the measure of everything which went into the conception and planning of the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas is humankind itself.
Is the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas a daring project? No, it is a daring reality! It has been conceived in line with the rich heritage of Sintra and bearing in mind the international parameters that confront any initiative of this type which wishes to go beyond the confines of local interests and recent generations.