In May/June of this year I was an Artist in Residence at the Convento São Francisco in Mértola, Portugal. The former Franciscan convent stands above the convergence of the Rivers Oeiras and Guadiana in the Alentejo region, south and east of the capital Lisbon. Historically part of the Roman breadbasket, the region has grown increasingly dry in recent decades. A complicated pumping system brings river water up a steep hillside to the convent’s many irrigated gardens and interior patios shaded by Cyprus and Poplars. The old noria/well house offers relief at midday to painters and amphibians alike and became a favorite retreat from the sun. My atelier was within thick convent walls which provided natural air conditioning. At day’s end the Guadiana was my swimming pool—the best possible way to cool off.
It’s a short walk from the convent grounds into Mértola, across the old bridge over the Oeiras. Until modern times the road to Mértola was the river—first the Romans, then the Moors, then the Christian kings, and nowadays water sports enthusiasts. For an artist, it’s a dream—a 9th c castle, built by the Moors, a Roman baptismal fount surrounded by 3rd c AD fresoces, a parish church carved out of a former mosque. The Town Hall sits atop a Roman house, easily visited by entering the main door, enjoying the extreme A/C and descending a flight of stairs to find stellae, amphorae, ancient walls. Another modest house contains the Islamic art museum, and another Arte Sacra with paintings from the 15th-16th centuries. The old Customs House stands in ruins beside the Guadiana—on my nightly swim route.
Sheep and cattle trails marked the land for centuries. Increasingly prolonged droughts and extreme heat over recent decades have affected land use and caused flight. Like the landscape, the Convento São Francisco has seen its share of change, including closure in the 19th c, after which it fell into ruin. In the 1980s, the Dutch Zwanikken family arrived, by chance, in Mértola. They were quickly seduced by the landscale and light. They eventually acquired the ruined convent and grounds and set to work on what is now a 40 year restoration project—reestablishing gardens on an historic model, irrigating the land, involving the local community. Theirs is another chapter in the story of Mértola. And so, too briefly, was part of mine this spring.