City and Spectacle: a vision of pre-earthquake Lisbon 

1. Concept

This project consists of a Second Life® virtual recreation of the memory of Lisbon just before the earthquake of 1st November 1755, giving shape to a laboratory model of research into the city’s history.

2. Partners

The project was developed by a team at the Centre for History of Art and Artistic Research (CHAIA), of the University of Évora, Portugal and the company Beta Technologies (Architects of the Virtual World).

3. Historical Context

On the eve of the earthquake, Lisbon was one of the most populated cities in Europe. It was also a major seaport and international trading station, and the political heart of an empire that extended from India to Brazil. Since the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese capital had turned into a cosmopolitan city, highly diversified from a social and demographic standpoint.

Portrayed by some travellers and foreign residents as a mixture of misery, extreme religious devotion and baroque extravagance, the old Lisbon became a mythical city for eighteenth-century Europeans while for the Portuguese it has remained so until today.

Its destruction made the headlines in the European press, inspiring many texts of different significance, notably Voltaire’s Candide ou l’Optimisme (1759), and had an important impact on European eighteenth- century thought.

After the earthquake, King Joseph I’s minister, the future Marquis of Pombal, built a new city centre with a regular layout arranged in uniform blocks with the crucial help of the Portuguese military engineers. The old city centre with its particular morphological and social characteristics disappeared.

4. Methodology and potentialities

Following a survey and selection of written documentation, iconography and cartography found in archives and national museums, the project aimed at recreating the area altered by the reconstruction plan as it was on the eve of the 1755 earthquake, including the interiors of noteworthy buildings in addition to audio and animation components of the city’s life.

The project was developed from late 2008 to 2013.

Given its goals, the team used Second Life® technology in its open-source version OpenSimulator (OpenSim). This technology allows users and researchers to interact in real-time in an immersive and easily built collaborative space. There was no separation between the modelling and visualization stages. These characteristics foster the coordination of researchers when confirming historical hypotheses, allowing the model to be updated and implemented at a low cost. The model enables the immersion in a lost urban reality to both a specialized and broader public, in a context of social interaction, as well as promoting the didactic and leisure dimensions of the project.

The lack of consistent and adequate funding allowed only for the recreation of the exteriors of the Ribeira Royal Palace, Chapel Street, Clock Tower, Patriarchal Piazza, Royal Opera House and Pátio das Arcas. A tentative recreation of the Opera House interiors was also devised.

The scarcity of primary sources on the subject highlighted the challenge of presenting a visual model based upon different levels of evidence. Historical research always exercises imagination stemming from data interpretation. The methodological approach that led to this working hypothesis is presented in the model’s Virtual Museum and in the team’s publications on the project.

A work in progress in need of continuous scientific and technological updates, these models are exceptional laboratories for research.

This project enabled the long research path into Lisbon’s history to be tested in an interactive and immersive three-dimensional representation. It also contributed to the team’s extensive work on the significance of digital technology in historical research.

The project’s online availability promotes scientific debate and the sharing of documentary sources about the city of Lisbon and Urban History in the international context.

5. Team

The team brings together researchers in Art History, specializing in the history of the city, urbanism, architecture and landscape; specialists in Virtual Reality and experts in the application of IT resources to the research and dissemination of history.

Alexandra Gago da Câmara – Art Historian (Open University/CHAIA – University of Évora), Portugal

Helena Murteira – Art Historian (CHAIA – University of Évora), Portugal

Paulo Simões Rodrigues – Art Historian (CHAIA – University of Évora), Portugal

Luís Miguel Richheimer Marta de Sequeira – Beta Technologies

Silvana Moreira – Beta Technologies


António Filipe Pimentel – Art Historian (University of Coimbra), Portugal

Aurora Carapinha – Landscape Architect (CHAIA – University of Évora), Portugal

Bruno Martinho – Art Historian (CHAM – Humanities Centre, Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, New University of Lisbon)

Drew Etienne Baker – King’s Visualisation Lab/King’s College London, UK

Joaquim Ramos de Carvalho – Historian (University of Coimbra), Portugal

Pedro Miguel Gomes Januário – Architect (Faculty of Architecture, University of Lisbon), Portugal