Portugal //

The Golden Age


For over a hundred years, in the period spanning the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, Portugal was one of the richest countries in the world, an economic powerhouse that controlled a trading empire spreading from Brazil in the west to Macau in the east. It was Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498 that kick-started the spice trade, shooting Portugal – already doing well from African gold and slavery – into the top league of wealthy nations. Its maritime empire reached a peak during the reign of Manuel I “The Fortunate” (1495–1521), the so-called Golden Age that also produced Luís de Camões and Gil Vicente, two of Portugal’s greatest writers, along with the new, exuberant Manueline architectural style. Portugal was to hit the jackpot again in the seventeenth century, when enormous gold reserves were discovered in Brazil, but changing markets and overindulgence soon reduced its financial clout, and after the Great Earthquake of 1755 the country sank into economic obscurity. Nevertheless, the physical legacy of Portugal’s empire remains in the surviving buildings and monuments of the Golden Age, such as Lisbon’s Torre de Belém and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, while Portuguese itself is the world’s fifth most-spoken language.

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