Portuguese writing officially began in the 12th century when Henri de Bourgogne, father of Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, brought with his court several French scholars and literary gentlemen.
From the very beginning, the strength of Portuguese literature has been its lyrical and poetical virtues powered by one of the world’s great Romance languages.
Saudade, an all-consuming sense of nostalgic yearning, has long permeated large segments of Portuguese literature, as it has fado, the country’s heartfelt national song.
Early court writers followed many of the traditions, ideas, forms and structures of the French poets, whose style became etched into the very fabric of the Portuguese people and their culture.
One of the earliest figures in Portuguese literature was Dom Dinis (1279-1325), who became affectionately known as the ‘poet king’. He composed many lyrical verses on the themes of love, friendship, chivalry and courtly affairs and it was this same forward-thinking king who founded Coimbra University, one of the world’s oldest educational institutions.
Fernão Lopes (c 1380-c 1459) was described as the father of Portuguese history after being commissioned to write the story of the earliest monarchs and three of his accounts still exist. In those days, prose writing was used mostly for keeping court records and noting historical events.
Later, the courtiers of King Duarte I (1433-38) developed a more artful prose form adopting many of the strict rules of the Greek and Latin writers with which they were very familiar.
In the 15th century, Portugal began to feel its strength as a nation and literature bloomed with it. When Pedro Álvares Cabral sailed to Brazil, the writer Pedro Vaz de Caminha accompanied the fleet and chronicled the event in virile and observant prose.
Half a century later, Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-80) wrote what was to become Portugal’s greatest-ever piece of literature, Os Lusíadas. Recounting the stark reality of Vasco da Gama‘s pioneering sea voyage to India in 1497, this epic 1,102-stanza poem was first published in Lisbon in 1572.
Camões lived an extraordinary life. Although his early years are largely guesswork, we can presume that he was born in 1524 into a middle-class family, probably in Lisbon where he spent much of his youth. It is also assumed that he studied at Coimbra University (indicated on the map below), where he developed the type of classical learning that emblazoned his work.
He enlisted as a soldier in 1547 and set sail for Africa to fight the Moors, losing his right eye in the process. His subsequent voyage to India in 1553 began a 16-year period of exile, during which he was imprisoned in Goa and shipwrecked in the South China Sea. It was then that he wrote the bulk of Os Lusíadas, which celebrates Gama’s epic journey in glorious detail. It was his only work to be published during his lifetime, for he died of the plague in 1580 just ten years after his return to Lisbon.
The 16th century produced other brilliant works in Portuguese literature. This was the age of the great maritime adventures, when the hostels and taverns were buzzing with tales of exotic lands and fantastic discoveries. Such stories served to inspire other talented writers and poets of the time, including Gil Vicente (1470-1540), creator of the Portuguese theatre and whose plays are still widely appreciated.
Considered to be the William Shakespeare of Portugal, Gil Vicente introduced emotion to the court through popular farces and religious dramas which despite being stereotypically medieval were full of bawdy wit.
One of the most remarkable literary events of the 17th century was the discovery of a series of love letters written in French by a Portuguese nun, Sister Mariana Alcoforado, after she had fallen in love with a French cavalry officer. Published in France under the simple title ‘Letters of a Portuguese Nun’, they scandalised Portuguese society at the time but have since become classics of romantic literature.
The introduction of Romanticism sparked a great literary movement in Portugal in the 19th century. The first Portuguese Romantics and the most notable representatives of the movement were Almeida Garrett (1799-1854), author of several romances, epics and lyrical dramas, and Alexandre Herculano de Carvalho e Araújo (1810-77), a historian who also wrote intriguing novels.
Modern Portuguese literature is dominated by poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under several names and in a variety of styles using the classic form mixed with surrealistic undertones. Widely considered to be Portugal’s greatest poet after Camões, he created no less than 72 different literary characters, or heteronyms, each with their own lifestyle, traits and distinctive personality.
Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon on the 13th of June 1888. He received an English middle-class education in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul. He returned to Lisbon at the age of 18, never to leave the city again. On his death in 1935, he left behind a trunk containing 24,426 items of poetry and other pieces of text.
The 20th century finished on a high note for Portuguese literature after writer José Saramago (1922-2010) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He was the first Portuguese novelist to receive the world’s most prized literary award, for which he collected almost US$1 million. Open to visitors, his foundation is located at the Casa dos Bicos in downtown Lisbon.