Romanticism in Science – Pena National Palace

The eclectic Palace of Pena, influenced by both Catholicism and Islam, with works inspired by scientific developments merging with mystical cults…

The Pena Palace sits on a high peak of the Serra, dominating the views from the town of Sintra. An architectural work of pure Romanticism, the palace was once a monastery that was severely damaged in the  great Lisbon earthquake in the late 18th century.

Three point perspective, red and yellow stone walls, castle rising out of the forest, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace
The Pena Palace, once the former Hieronymite Monastery, built into a rocky peak

Despite this, the chapel, attributed to the early 16th Century French architect Nicolau Chanterene, remained mostly intact. In 1838, it was acquired by Prince Ferdinand II and transformed into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family.

Disney like castle between the trees, Moorish architecture, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace, Sintra
View of the towers and walls of the Pena Palace from the Pena Park

The palace was given over to a German architect, who transformed it in just over a decade. With strong input from Queen Maria and the King, the ruined monastery was transformed into a tribute to the multitude of architectural influences that existed in Portugal at the time, as well as its wider colonies. In the Palace of Pena, medieval Catholic and Islamic elements rub shoulder with the styles of Scientific Romanticism, influenced by Greek mythology.

Medieval islamic door way, view of courtyard, orientalist architecture, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace.
Medieval islamic flats, moorish windows, tiled walls, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace
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This is immediately apparent upon entering the Palace. For above one of the main doorways into the inner courtyard, there is a large sculpture of Triton, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea. Triton squats over the doorway, adorned with intricate motifs of waves, corals and other nautical symbols. On his shoulders rests a huge bay window, its colonnettes carved with grapes, vines, and flora and fauna of the land.

god of the sea, Triton, allegorical gateway symbolising creation of heavens and earth
The influence of science in Romanticism is most pronounced in this doorway, which depicts Triton, the messenger of the sea, over an allegorical gateway symbolising the creation of the heavens and earth

This impressive sculpture must be understood in the context of its time. In 1838, when the Palace of Pena was acquired, Darwin had just conceived his theory of natural selection, and this impressive sculpture was a tribute to this world-changing scientific advancement. Bridging the evolutionary jump of life from the sea, onto the land.

three point perspective, yellow castle walls, moorish architecture, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace
stone courtyard surrounded by yellow castle walls with islamic architectural influences
Curving grand stone staircase leading up into the yellow castle wall, Science Romanticism Pena National Palace
stone courtyard of the yellow castle, european medieval islamic architecture, Romanticism in Science and Sintra


Prince Ferdinand’s reputation and tastes as a man of the arts and sciences proliferate throughout the complex. Similar motifs can be found all over the Palace of Pena. High up in the palace, in one of the private rooms, is his study and workshop, now turned into a museum of all the equipment and art he once possessed. The most interesting piece of art is a bronze sculpture of a Greek goddess (to be honest, I can’t remember which one it was, Artemis most likely, or maybe Gaea), undressing before some lenses. The title of the peace is “Nature undresses herself before science”, quite telling.

naked breasted desk statue, nature undresses herself before science, photograph of king ferdinand 2
The diorama, “Nature undresses herself before science”, in Prince Ferdinand II’s study

Apart from the interesting references to the scientific developments of the time, merging with Catholicism and the resurgence of ancient mystical cults and practices, the palace was also a melting pot of architectural styles.

medieval islamic courtyard, raid, blue mosaic tiles, coral pink castle tower, three point perspective
The preserved courtyard of the 16th Century Manueline cloister sporting mosaics from all over the Portuguese empire

In an inner courtyard, part of the monastery, tiles from all over the Portuguese empire were put on display. Now, most of it has been worn by the elements, but it is still possible to make out the huge variety in designs that line the walls. Here uniformity gives way to diversity, with elegant and aesthetically pleasing results.

wild flowers in foreground, grey castle fortress rising in three point perspective
Wild flowers growing at the base of the Pena National Palace
grey foundations of Pena National Palace built into the mountain rock of Sintra
architectural detail of Pena National Palace with moorish and orientalist influences, mosaic wall castle
Nahno Purple Butterfly Bush in foreground, science romanticism pena national palace
Different levels of the Pena National Palace, fortress walls and palm trees in front


Our tour of the palace ended through the palace kitchen. A large, cavernous hall populated with original culinary artifacts that had been in use when the palace was populated. For anyone with a love for the culinary arts, this kitchen is a dream. With its spacious halls, large ovens and all sorts of equipment you could think of, as existed at the time.

royal kitchen of Pena National Palace, 19th century cooking equipment,
The royal kitchen, the largest of the many rooms in the palace

Aside from the architectural wonders was the view of Sintra from the Palace of Pena, and the forested Serra (along with the peak where the Statue of the Warrior stands upon, overlooking the Atlantic).

Panorama of Sintra, Portugal from Pena National Palace
View of Sintra from the kitchen terrace of the Palace. It was from the Monastery of our Lady of Pena that Manuel I watched the return of Vasco de Gama from his historic voyage

Extending this beauty and eclecticism to the park surrounding the Pena Palace, Ferdinand had trees from a many diverse, distant lands planted here. Among these are the North American Sequoia, Chinese Gingko, Japanese Cryptomeria, ferns from Australia and New Zealand and shrubs and succulents from Northern Africa.

Lake in the garden of Pena National Palace with stone tower on island, Sintra, Portugal
The Grotto of the Monk, a quiet meditation retreat for former Hieronymite monks

The flora in the park greatly resembled (at least to me) the one found in the Cova crater we had seen on Santo Antão, in Cape Verde. But this was not really surprising, as many plants and trees had been brought over to the Portuguese colonies. Creating a living token and testament to their naval power and conquests in previous centuries.

Science Romanticism Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal.
Small, artificial lake in the lower levels of the Park of Pena