INNER CITY ENSEMBLE
Upon entering Serpa it is impossible to miss its impressive ramparts, a National Monument (see official decree) that surrounds the entire urban hub classified in 2011 a Public Interest Ensemble (see official ordinance). This is where the city’s most emblematic monuments are found, testimonies of this territory’s extensive and significant history.
Several archaeological interventions have been proving the occupation of this site since the Chalcolithic period and there are also vestiges of occupation during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In Roman times, Serpa provided important support to the route that connected Beja to Huelva, offering lodging to state officials passing through, with rooms, thermal baths, stables, workshops and warehouses.
The oldest vestiges of fortification date from the Islamic time; the best example being the Torre da Horta tower. With the Christian reconquest in the thirteenth century, the fortification was reformulated and, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, King Dinis ordered the reinforcement of this defensive system with the rebuilding and expansion of the ramparts. King Manuel I had a new rampart built, which is the origin the majority of the vestiges visible today. The oldest part of the ensemble is the area next to the castle, known as the "Castelo Velho/Old Castle" district, where the ground floor architecture, narrow streets and irregular layout persist to this day. The remaining urban fabric was gradually defined over the centuries, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, expanding through the lower area up to the limits of the ramparts. There we find examples of vernacular architecture side by side with more erudite constructions, single-storey houses alongside two-storey dwellings and also sunny buildings that integrate beautiful details in stonework and wrought iron, many of them emblazoned, reminiscent of their aristocratic occupants of the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century.
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Serpa, a frontier land that witnessed frequent conflicts, was, on the eve of the "Reconquest", a large fortified settlement, overlooking fertile farmlands. The old ramparts, on the summit of a small elevation, delimited an area of about 21,000m2. By the end of the thirteenth century, King Dinis, in an effort to reorganize the Christian Alentejo, rebuilt the Muslim village and ordered the construction of a fortified palace and of an impressive 65,000m2 urban wall.
It is quite possible that the bell tower of the Igreja de Santa Maria church, built around a cylindrical structure, is the living testimony of the old mosque’s minaret.
Signs of the Islamic past are still visible in some sections of rammed earth rampart and in two towers: the Horta tower, partially reused in the construction of the Gothic castle, and the Relógio tower, transformed in the sixteenth century into a clock tower, thought to be the third oldest in the country.
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THE FIRST ICONOGRAPHIC REPRESENTATIONS OF SERPA
are the drawings by Duarte de Armas, from the early sixteenth century. In them, the village appears enclosed by a double ring of ramparts, the main wall and the Barbican, and most of the dwellings are two-storey houses or higher, which means that they belonged to "gentlemen, knights and squires and other well-off people". The wall, with a layout of reticulated tendency that is still visible in the current centre, is interrupted by three doors, named after the paths that left from them: Beja, Moura and Seville. In the sixteenth century, the town of Serpa was an urban centre of some importance in the region. In the first decade of that century it had about 500 dwellings (2,500 inhabitants) and it had already expanded outside the walls, towards the Igreja de São Salvador church, through a door created for that purpose, the São Martinho door, next to the chapel built to honour that same saint.
© Duarte de Armas, Inner City Ensemble
Of the buildings from this period, proof of the effective growth of the town, stand out, in 1502, the Igreja de São Francisco church and the Convento de São Francisco convent.
The construction of the Misericórdia (charity institution) complex dates from the same period, and included “a small church, exquisitely adorned with carving and gold, fake stone and fine tile".
In the late sixteenth century, on the eastern side of the medieval wall, Serpa’s mayor Francisco de Melo ordered the construction of the building now known as the Ficalho Palace.
On the same section of the Wall was erected an aqueduct to take water to that palace. It is supported by arches and extends to the Southern extremity, where it ends in a great noria built over the mouth of a well.
AFTER THE TROUBLED YEARS THAT FOLLOWED THE PORTUGUESE RESTORATION,
years of war and consolidation of independence, the town of Serpa experienced a new construction peak characterised (but not limited to) by defence concerns.
In the seventeenth century were rebuilt the churches of São Salvador and Santa Maria, buildings originally erected in the fourteenth century, but that now bear little traces of that period.
From the end of the seventeenth century stand out the Church and Convent of São Paulo and the Calvário, a circular building with a dome roof and irregular stones embedded in the exterior walls, and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, a single-storey building.
During the 1580 Succession Crisis, Serpa and its castle were taken by the Spanish troops. With the Restoration of the Independence of Portugal, it was one of the first to raise the Portuguese flag, and the town and its castle were donated by King João IV (1640-1656) to Prince Pedro (1641), becoming a part of the Casa do Infantado (an appanage for the second eldest son of the Portuguese monarch). With the Restoration War in sight, and like other fortified towns in the border region, it underwent modernization works - based on a project by the architect Nicolau de Langres - which were never completed. The fortified rampart that was to defend the town was only partially constructed, consisting of the Fort of São Pedro de Serpa, completed in 1668.
© CMS, Beja Door and Aqueduct
As a result of Portugal's participation in the Spanish War of Succession, the town was taken by the Spanish in 1707, under the command of the Duke of Ossuna. The troops retreated the following year, but only after causing extensive damages, especially to the castle and the urban rampart. In fact, the explosion of the castle’s keep created some beautiful and surprising ruins.
© CMS, city ensemble
Unlike the rest of the country, the town’s population did not increase during the eighteenth century, perhaps because of the local economy's excessive sensitivity to fluctuations in wheat production, which created many crisis situations, especially in the second half of the century.
Even so, the town did not lose any of its social significance. In 1758 it had 5,576 registered inhabitants and it was viewed as a town of "remarkable and large credit" due to the "houses of up-scale people".
At the end of the seventeenth century, the church of Nossa Senhora do Carmo - known as the Santuário (Shrine) - was built within the ramparts, an interesting testimony of the neoclassical architecture in the Baixo Alentejo.