Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, located on Lisbon's Avenida de Berna, is one of the city's cultural gems. Housing one of the finest collections of art in Europe, the museum is a veritable jewel box of priceless treasures that astonish with their richness and beauty.
The exhibits on display at this Lisbon museum constitute a magnificent inventory of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian and European art. The sheer breadth of the collection is such that it’s difficult to imagine that it once all belonged to one man – Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian.
Persian and Turkish carpets displayed in the Eastern Islamic arts section of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Born in Turkey in 1869 to Armenian parents, Gulbenkian quickly became a pioneer of the oil industry. His frighteningly astute business acumen came to the fore during his time as an oil consultant to the Ottoman court. Finding his forte, the canny negotiator helped create the Turkish Petroleum Company, a consortium of four major European oil companies, which later included Shell and BP. The businessman's part in arranging the transfer of assets garnered him a 5% stake in the business and earned Gulbenkian the sobriquet “Mr. Five Percent."
The oil magnate invested his vast wealth wisely. His passion for fine works of art led him to accumulate one of the best private art collections in the world. Relocating to neutral Portugal during World War II, he lived in Lisbon until he died in 1955, bequeathing his extraordinary hoard to his adopted homeland. A foundation was created in 1956 to manage the estate, and in 1969 – a century after his birth – the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was inaugurated.
Since then, the museum has welcomed millions of visitors and become one of Portugal’s foremost cultural organizations. Set in a verdant park located in the middle of the city, the museum is worth a good hour of your time – the collection numbers some 6,000 pieces!
The exhibits from antiquity are particularly stunning. Look out for the row of gleaming Roman medallions that were found in Abu Qir in Egypt in 1902, probably struck between AD 218 to AD 222 as gifts for high-ranking guests attending the Beroia festival. Gulbenkian succeeded in purchasing 11 of the 20 unearthed. Several of them feature a posthumous and idealized portrait of Alexander the Great.
In the Eastern Islamic arts section are fabulous Turkish and Persian carpets displayed across the floor. One of these, the 17th-century "Portuguese Carpet," is so named because of the embroidered caravels decorating each corner. Clearly visible are figurative motifs depicting Europeans in the same types of ships used by Portuguese navigators during their intrepid voyages of discovery.
Meander through the gallery of European art to gaze upon masterpieces such as Gulbenkian’s favorite painting, Portrait of Helena Fourment, a beguiling 1630 study by Ruben of the artist’s second wife.
Among the dazzling artifacts displayed in the French 18th-century decorative art gallery is a carved gilded beechwood armchair that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
A tour of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian concludes in a salon dedicated to French Art Nouveau jeweler René Lalique. The collector was a close confidant of Lalique and acquired many pieces from the designer, among them the fantastical Dragonfly Woman Corsage Ornament, the exquisite half-woman, half-dragonfly brooch that is arguably Lalique’s most outstanding creation.
Apparently, Lalique never actually intended his jewelry to be worn, but the dragonfly is an exception. It was made for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and she wore it just once on stage. It's fitting, then, that this piece brings the curtain down on such an exceptional and discerning collection of art.