The gardens of the country houses offered visitors delicious walks scented by flowers of all colors. When walking among beautiful sculptures integrated into the landscape, the guests marveled at the continuous flow of waters that fell from fountains and waterfalls. Water has always been the spectacular element of the garden. To everyone’s delight, it went up in jets, as animated by a magical force, only to gently fall into the basins.
According to a description of the 19th century, the Cascata dos Gigantes at Quinta dos Marqueses de Pombal, in Oeiras, was named after two giant sculptures. Unfortunately displaced to receive visitors at the palace entrance, they represent Polyphemus, the one-eyed creature, lifting a heavy rock, and Faunus playing the flute.
In addition to the sculptures by Machado de Castro, the ensemble drew attention for imitating the rumor of a cascade. The water crashed in successive steps into the marble tank, only to overflow and run down the stairs, almost at the spectator’s feet.
The water also served to fill a pool, and the set, built as an extension of the gardens, probably was designed by the architect Reinaldo dos Santos. Completed in 1774, it was just in time to entertain the royal family, who spent the next two years in Oeiras for King D. José, advised by doctors, to go for baths in Estoril.
Angling next to a waterfall, with the fabulous scenery created by the large panels of blue and white tiles, was an unusual entertainment in the gardens of Portuguese villas. It is likely to be an English influence, since Sebastião José de Carvalho was an ambassador in London and certainly knew, at least by fame, the fish pond of the Whitton Park of the 3rd Duke of Argyll. To keep all the necessary equipment, there was – and yet there is – a charming fishing house, decorated with beautiful stucco from Giovanni Grossi workshop.
To represent the tragic story of Polyphemus, Acis, and Galatea, Sebastião de Almeida, inspired by Jean Lepautre’s engraving, painted the hidden love of nereid with the pastor, who was killed by the vengeful jealousy of the giant cyclops.
As the verses of the poet Ovid tell us, the gods heard the poignant pleas of the nereid and transformed Acis in the river of Sicily that bears his name:
I then did the only thing which the fates would allow: I gave my lover the powers of his mother’s father, the river Symaethus. A trickle of crimson blood was flowing from under the boulder, but after a little while the redness started to vanish. First it turned to the muddy brown of a swollen torrent, then slowly it cleared completely. That moment, I touched the rock and it gaped wide open. A tall green seed shot up from the crack; the hollow mouth of the opening rang with the roar of cascading water; and wonder of wonders, there suddenly rose waist-high a youth with horns on his brow, which were wreathed in a garland of rushes. The youth was Acis, except he was taller and all of his face was the colour of dark sea-green. But even so it was Acis, transformed to a river whose course has retained his original name.
The metamorphoses of the gods with their fancy amorous adventures were a constant presence in the aristocratic gardens. In 1783, after dismissing the Marquis of Pombal, Queen D. Maria I visited the villa. In the company of her uncle-husband, they had immense pleasure in contemplating the waterfall and taking part in a pleasant and elegant fishery.
METAMORPHOSES. A New Verse Translation. Translated by David Raeburn with an Introduction by Denis Feeney. London: Penguin Books, 2004. ISBN: 978-0-141-90625-6.
MEMORIAL HISTÓRICO ou Colecção de Memórias sobre Oeiras. Desde seu princípio, como Lugar e Cabeça de Julgado, e depois Vila. Tomo II. Leitura e notas de João Cláudio Aworters Lopes. Coordenação e notas de Salete Salvado. Oeiras: Camara Municipal de Oeiras, 1982.