The Portuguese are very keen on their statues. You see them everywhere: in people’s gardens, in town squares, in front of churches, in shopping centres, you even see them in the centre of roundabouts. Mostly the statues are carved from granite or made of bronze. On the North bank of the River Lima in Ponte de Lima, there is a Roman soldier on horseback, calling his men across the river at its shallowest point. The story goes that the soldiers didn’t want to cross the river, because they thought it was the mythical River Lethes, and they were worried that it would obliterate their memories. It was only once their leader had crossed on horseback and survived that the soldiers were willing to follow. About a year ago, a granite bull joined the soldier on horseback on the North bank. On the South bank of the River you can also see a monument in bronze to the people who work the land. As you can see from the photos below, the Portuguese have no problem with children climbing on secular statues. Indeed, these statues seem purpose built for it.
Every year there is a garden festival in the town of Ponte de Lima, and there are always lots of statues there. Here are a few from recent festivals. They’re not exactly what we in the UK would necessarily expect of statues. They are made by the people and about the people and their lives, rather than as a permanent monument in admiration of an elite. They are typically amusing, beautiful or thought provoking.
In the centre of Ponte de Lima, next to the church, there is a large bronze statue of a bull that is also great for climbing on and sliding down. This is the spot where the annual festival of Vaca das Cordas begins, at Corpus Christi. It is a festival with very ancient roots, dating back to the goddess Io in Roman times, for whom the cow was a sacred animal. During the festival a bull is dragged around the town on ropes, while the local people basically do everything they can to wind the bull up. The bull is taken three times round the fountain in the town square, splashed with water, and then taken down onto the bank of the River Lima where the people carry on running at and away from it. Massive crowds attend the festival, and a few people usually get injured by the bull each year. This is us getting as close as we dare to go to a live bull held by only four ropes.
Sometimes statues are no longer welcome, because of who or what they represent. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign led to the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town. A similar campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes at Oxford University has led to heated debate in the UK. After wars or revolutions, people often dispose of statues in an act of rebellious destruction. In Iraq in 2003 the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled and decapitated in Baghdad. In Portugal in 1974, during the Carnation Revolution, the people beheaded the statue of Prime Minister Salazar with dynamite. They also stuck carnations in the muzzles of the soldiers’ rifles, which is kind of a cool way to go about a revolution.
The point about statues is that are a very particular type of art form. When we paint a picture, sometimes we do it to mock the people we disapprove of, or to highlight the things that we despise. But when we make a statue it is mostly to celebrate a person or a thing that we admire. The stone heads on Easter Island; the generals on their plinths in Trafalgar Square; the bulls in the town of Ponte de Lima. Statues watch over us, reminding us of our history, of the priorities of our society, and of the way that things once were. But they don’t all last as long as each other. And while I’d be surprised if there was still a statue of Rhodes at Oxford in 1,000 years, I bet there will still be one of a bull in Ponte de Lima.