Portugal # 7: Liebres

Lisbon # 7:   Liebres

            Three groups that don’t believe in coincidence: mystically bent fundamentalists, New Age practitioners, and homicide detectives. In most regards I am a skeptic. Chance is chance and effects have rational causes. Post hoc does not imply propter hoc.

            Or does it . . . .?

            A nice day. We’re pretty well finished in the Torre de Tombo archives. Linda and I go for a morning walk up to Lisbon’s castle and down through the old Aljama district.

Two o’clock, famished, we slip into a tiny restaurant on a tiny plaza, chosen pretty much at random. It’s a poor neighborhood, picturesque only in a borderline seedy sort of way. It’s two or three steep streets away from the tourist track. Also, the street is under construction. Not the sort of place a non-resident would be likely to come to other than by accident. For ten minutes we are the only customers. Then a couple comes in, sits down, and, like we, chatters away. For some reason, even though this is Portugal Linda and I generally speak Spanish when we’re out and about. Turns out the ot

her couple is Spanish, on vacation for a few days from Santander. They peer at our table and ask us what we are having (smoked salmon with asparagus; lamb chops grilled with rosemary). A couple of minutes and we are lunchtime friends.

“Are you here on vacation too?”

“Well, not entirely,” we answer. “We’ve been doing some historical research at the Torre de Tombo.”

“What sorts of things?”

The recurrent dilemma: respond in ten words that we’re trying to trace the antecedents of some Mexican families, or tell them enough to understand why what we’re seeking is so fascinating. Angel keeps asking leading questions, so I get drawn into it.   Mexico, the Inquisition, mining towns, silver, the mercury trade. It’s clear that they figure us for Mexicans.

Azogue, right? Do you know that most of the mercury came from Spain, from Almadén?”

“Yes,” I answer, “but then when the deposits at Huancavelica were developed, a lot of azogue was shipped to Mexico from the Andes. A little from Bohemia, too. The Hapsburgs controlled all three sources.”

“Four. Some of the mercury came from Teruel, too: the Real Mina de Azogue.”

“I didn’t know that,” I told him. In fact, I’d never heard of it, never seen it in the literature. I was dumbfounded: how the hell had two aficionados of the Renaissance mercury network happened to choose the same restaurant in the Alfama to have lunch in?


To make a long story short (“Hah!” says Linda), we exchanged e-mails, and by nightfall Ángel Trujillano had sent me fourteen files of his research notes on Potosí, Huancavelica, Bartolomé de Medina (the guy who discovered how to refine silver by amalgamating the ore with mercury), and similar matters. Donde menos se piensa, salta la liebre (Where you least expect it, out pops the rabbit). 



Still shaking our heads at the coincidence, we go home to find an email invitation for later that evening. It’s from Roberto Bachmann, the President of the Portuguese Association of Jewish Studies, who’d heard on the grapevine that we were in town and wanted to meet us. Bachmann is a successful businessman (real estate), and his wife Graça is a noted architect and designer. We had seen her name a couple of days earlier on a monument in the Praza de São Domingos memorializing Lisbon’s Jews.

We had heard that Roberto was a passionate bibliophile, and that he and Graça had the resources to make his collection significant.

At 9:30, in our nicer clothes (not jeans, for a change) we take the elevator to the 15th floor of an apartment building on the posh side of town. Roberto and Graça are charming hosts, and over tea and almond-crusted marzipan crescents they pump us about our interests and activities. He has read my Secrecy and Deceit, so he is not interviewing cold. Tea finished, the preliminaries over, he leads us past inlaid antique furniture and Renaissance paintings to his book room to tour us through some of the highlights of his collection. It soon becomes evident why the room is secured like a bank vault. His collection rivals those of the best research libraries in which we’ve been privileged to work. On one shelf, bound in leather, are first editions of every 17th- and 18th-century Portuguese Auto-da-fe sermon that was ever printed. First editions of major literary works crowd the shelves. That’s Major, capital M. Among them is a first edition of Camões’ Os Lusiadas; if you don’t do Portuguese, think Shakespeare, or Cervantes. There are rare books of Jewish philosophy from Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Ferrara. The basic philosophical texts of the era of the expulsions, most of them in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions in Latin, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish . . .  Anti-Semitic diatribes, instruction books for inquisitors, prayer books for proselytizing to Marranos, justifications of 16th-century racial laws. Books for, about, and by converts. If it is rare, and the subject matter is relevant to Portuguese Jews and converts, its first edition is in that vault.

After a dazzling hour or so Roberto takes us to a small private elevator for the ride to his bookroom on the 16th floor. The building officially has only only15 floors, he’s had a penthouse library, study, and bedroom erected on the 16th. The bedroom is for scholars who come to work for a while in the collection. He names several people I know and have great respect for, who have been his guests. Immediately my mind fills with projects to which it would be fun to dedicate a year or two, and how nice it would be to spend that much time in Lisbon, a city that Linda and I have come to like very much.

Graça, who has to work the next day, slips off to bed at 11:30. We make noises about leaving, but Roberto has just a few more books to show us. At 12:15 their maid comes up in the elevator to the 16th non-floor and explains that Graça has asked her to tell him that . . . .

Reluctantly Roberto leads us toward the elevator. But, of course, by a circuitous route.

“We’ll go right down. But you have to see these engravings, first impressions, of all of the major Jewish philosophers of the Renaissance.”

I recognize the portraits of Menasseh ben Israel and Spinoza that I have often seen reproduced in books.

 “And medals. Did you know that familiars of the Inquisition, here in Portugal and in Spain too, used to wear these identifying medals on their cloaks and around their necks?”

No, actually, I didn’t know that. Probably because I’d never seen one or read about them before.

“This one,” he hands it to me: it’s the largest of the bunch, and in gold, “belonged to the king.”

At 12:30 we finally bid our adieus, promising to send each other book

s and information about publications during the past few years that we each seem to have missed making note of.

There’s no money in scholarship, but what with the thrill of discovery, the pretext for travel, the delight that comes from spending an evening with people like Roberto and Graça Bachmann, and that jumping rabbit, it isn’t a bad life.

  David & Linda
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