The Holiday Card
In June of 2018, I restored an historic fountain at our embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. Though pleased with the outcome, I never imagined who else might notice!
In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife visited the embassy. They were so impressed by the fountain that he and his wife chose it for the cover of their holiday card which went out to all State Department employees and contractors.
Decades of iron, calcium, lime and old darkened sealer heavily stained the antique tiles and marble features of the fountain. Plus, the plumbing leaked and the walkway around the fountain, made of white limestone, had darkened with moss and mold.
Not knowing the best technique for cleaning antique tile, I sought guidance from one of Portugal's leading handmade tile manufacturers, Viuva Lamego. Seeing my interpreter and surmising that I did not speak Portuguese, the director turned to me and tapped his teeth!
Like Cleaning Teeth
This was my introduction to the fine art of cleaning antique tile. It's like cleaning teeth, and the best equipment for the job are dental tools. You can scrape the tile with metal and you won't damage it at all. Just don't tap or press on the surface or it will crack.
The careful work took several days followed by training for embassy staff so that they can wipe the fountain surfaces once a week to keep it looking fresh.
So, what's the age of the fountain and who's the face?
The property was a farm that goes way back: pre-16th century. It is one of the few that survived the great Portuguese earthquake in the early 1700s.
The property was then bought by a rich family who rebuilt and expanded the farm estate in the late 1700s. This is when the handmade tile was added, including what you see on the fountain. So, we know the date of the tile: late 18th century. The marble face and shell may be older.
The US State Dept bought the property in the 1980s, built the embassy, and restored several of the most important buildings. This fountain was moved at that time from another location on the farm. Extensive tile restoration was done at that time, most likely including the sealant that over time turned black.
This was my first visit to Portugal and I soon learned that ceramic tile, particularly the blue and white pattern covering this fountain, has a special place in the history of this country. Nearly every building in Lisbon is covered with them, and you can tell how old a building is just by the tile pattern.
The Moors introduced Islamic art and mosaic tile to the Iberian peninsula, now Portugal, in the 8th century. The story goes that the Portuguese King Manuel I was awestruck by the beauty of Moorish tile when he visited the Alhambra Palace in southern Spain. He immediately ordered that his palace in Portugal be similarly decorated. And so 'azulejos', originally white and blue ceramic tiles, were fully embraced by the Portuguese even after the Moors were driven from Portugal in the 15th century.
Here’s what I know about the face. It likely depicts one of two ancient gods, the Roman god of waterways, Oceanus, or the Lusitanian god of fountains, Duberticus.
Oceanus is an oft-depicted figure and face on European fountains. He is the primordial Titan god of the earth-encircling river Okeanos, the source of all the earth’s fresh water – river, well, and rain. He also regulates the heavenly bodies that rise from and set into his waters. His hair and/or ears and/or beard is often depicted with a wavy shell-like or water-like pattern as seen on the ears of this face and the crest of water over his head. Note the shell at the top of the fountain, supporting the idea that we’re looking at a figure associated with water.
The fountain, as with others on this property, were originally connected to an aqueduct system, and parts of the original aqueduct can still be seen on the property. It was fed by a well that is still on the property but now closed. We are proposing to open the well and use it once-again to feed all the fountains.
The face is made of marble as is the shell. The fountain top stones and the surrounding stones of the walkway are limestone which is prevalent throughout Portugal.
So why isn’t the face Neptune or Poseidon, famous gods of water and oceans? Early on in Greek and Roman mythology, Poseidon and Neptune were distinct. Neptune was associated with fresh water and Poseidon, the sea. At some time in the BC era, Neptune and Poseidon became interchangeable as the god of the sea. When depicted in sculpture Poseidon and Neptune are never without a trident or similar motif, and I don’t see any sign of one anywhere near this Lisbon face.
Duberticus is the Lusitanian god of fountains. Lusitanian god worship centered around the area that now includes Lisbon and predates the arrival of the Romans circa 200 BC. There are no known existing images of Duberticus. However, this farm is very old and the fountain is original to the farm. Many Portuguese consider their proud heritage to be Lusitanian, and the Lusitanians fought off Roman rule for decades, so fountains in this area are least likely to depict anything related to Rome. This just may be the only exiting depiction of Duberticus!