Viseu

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On a plateau between the coast and the mountains, VISEU is one of Portugal’s best-kept secrets. It was named “Viso” by the Romans because of its great views, and it was from an embankment just outside town that Viriatus, the head of a local independence movement, waged war against its Roman occupiers. According to most polls, modern Viseu has the best quality of city life in Portugal, and it doesn’t take long to find out why. Its old town, clustered round a sturdy cathedral, is wonderfully unspoilt, while a burgeoning modern town is made up of wide avenues, leafy parks, a university and diverse array of shops, including the eye-popping Palácio do Gelo shopping centre.

Home to one of the region's most appealing museums, the Museu de Grão Vasco, Viseu is also close to some of Portugal’s best vineyards: fruity local Dão wines can be found in all of the restaurants. The main annual event is the agricultural fair-cum-festival of the Feira de São Mateus which runs from mid-August until its climax on September 21 (Dia do São Mateus).

Museu de Grão Vasco

Inside the former Bishop’s palace next to the cathedral, the Museu de Grão Vasco is Viseu’s star attraction. It displays religious paintings and artefacts, including some beautiful Oriental porcelain and textiles, but the main draw here are the paintings by local boy Vasco Fernandes, better known as “The Great Vasco” (Grão Vasco), widely regarded as one of Portugal’s best painters . His earliest work on display here is the fourteen panels tracing the life of Christ (1501–06), which were commissioned for the altarpiece of Viseu cathedral – note the vivid Adoration of the Magi which topically presents Balthasar as a Brazilian-inspired Indian with feathered headdress (Brazil had been “discovered” by the Portuguese in 1500). His most famous work is St Peter on His Throne (1530–35) – the painting has a freestanding mounting that allows you to see how the original frame was dovetailed together. There are also many works created by Grão Vasco with collaborators, and several by Gaspar Vaz, mostly depicting the apostles.

Grão Vasco and Gaspar Vaz

Little is known about Vasco Fernandes, universally known as Grão Vasco; it can only be said that he was born in or near the city of Viseu, probably in 1475, and that he died in 1542 or 1543. There was no major artist living in Viseu at the time to mentor the young Vasco Fernandes, so it’s assumed that he trained in Lisbon or even abroad. Even more problematic for art historians is that virtually all the works associated with him – up to 100 by some counts – have had to be identified by comparisons with the only two that he definitely signed, and with his known work on the surviving altar panels for Lamego and Viseu cathedrals. In many cases, his attributed works are collaborations, particularly with his Viseu contemporary Gaspar Vaz (1490–1569).

The Great Vasco

Little is known about Vasco Fernandes, universally known as Grão Vasco ("The Great Vasco"); it can only be said that he was born in or near the city of Viseu, probably in 1475, and that he died in 1542 or 1543. There was no major artist living in Viseu at the time to mentor the young Vasco Fernandes, so it’s assumed that he trained in Lisbon or even abroad. Even more problematic for art historians is that virtually all the works associated with him – up to one hundred by some counts – have had to be identified by comparisons with the only two that he definitely signed, and with his known work on the surviving altar panels for Lamego and Viseu cathedrals. In many cases, his attributed works are collaborations, particularly with his Viseu contemporary Gaspar Vaz (1490–1569).

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Mani Ramaswamy
8/29/2020
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