Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > This team of art historians uncovers secrets hidden in layers of paint

This team of art historians uncovers secrets hidden in layers of paint

The Old Goa Revelations Project is analysing portraits of Portuguese governors to discover that some were painted by Goan artists and that there are hidden layers to the paintings

Teresa Caldeira and Teresa Reis scan the surface of a painting at the Archaeological Museum and Portrait Gallery of Goa with a digital microscope. 
(Credit: Ian de Noronha/Courtesy ASI)
Teresa Caldeira and Teresa Reis scan the surface of a painting at the Archaeological Museum and Portrait Gallery of Goa with a digital microscope. (Credit: Ian de Noronha/Courtesy ASI)

Tourists who flock to Goa usually pay a cursory visit to Old Goa but the Archaeological Museum and Portrait Gallery of Goa, housed within the former Convent of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, rarely gets a nod. 

Within the museum, run by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is the Viceroys’ and Governors’ Portrait Gallery, an imposing, whitewashed laterite structure built in 1661. On the first floor of this high-ceilinged building are 120 paintings and a photograph of Goa’s rulers—including one of Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route from Europe to India and was Viceroy of Goa—from the 1500s to the late 1950s.

Also read: The history behind Panjim's stepped streets

For most visitors, the collection is merely a line of faces from Goa’s colonial past, but recent discoveries made during their restoration have revealed unexpected facets, including the fact that some may have been painted by local Goan artists, and that other paintings may have been altered to keep the political balance. Several of the portraits down the centuries have been repainted, over-painted, or even cut down to size for a host of reasons.

The Old Goa Revelations Project is a collaborative effort between the ASI and Portuguese art historians and experts to study the paintings through state-of-the-art, non-invasive technology. The project began in 2011 with three of the portraits that are in Portugal and from 2019, the team has been studying the ones in in Goa too. The paintings cover the 451 years of Portuguese rule in India (Estado da Índia), until Goa became part of the Indian Union in 1961. The ASI was given possession of the portraits in 1964. 

“Around 66 paintings from the collection are on display in the museum. The rest are in reserve but they get rotated periodically,” said Dr. Kishore Raghubans, Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, who is in charge of the museum. Three paintings are in Portugal. “The first phase of the project involved the training of ten ASI officials from our science branch to empower them in the handling and upkeep of the portraits,” he said. “Nineteen portraits were studied in the first phase and 32 in the second. In future phases of the project, more of the paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries will be investigated.” 

Portuguese conservator-restorer Ana Teresa Teves Reis of the Universidade de Évora, Laboratório HERCULES in Portugal, has been researching the paintings since 2011, and recently completed her PhD thesis, The Portrait Gallery of Viceroys and Governors of Portuguese India: Towards its Reinterpretation and Safeguard. “Stylistically, the formal composition of many portraits, especially the earlier period, does not correspond to the European canons. Instead, they have the influence of Mughal art. A good example of this is the portrait of D. João de Castro,” says Reis. 

Much like Mughal art, the subjects are painted without perspective, often against a plain background, sometimes a landscape, curtains or simple furniture. Heraldic shields near the head and text at the feet help in identifying the rulers. Most portraits, in Reis’ opinion, must have been carried out by Goan painters, with only a few names as yet identified. The team, which includes experts from ASI, Universidade de Évora, University of Lisbon and Laboratório José Figueiredo, Portuguese Directorate for Cultural Heritage, is hoping their continuing research will reveal more details about the painters and their lives.

The portrait collection was initiated in 1547 by Dom João de Castro, the fourth Viceroy (1545-1548) of Portuguese India, a year before his death. He commissioned 12 paintings of the three viceroys, including Vasco da Gama, who preceded him since 1505. Seven paintings were sent to Lisbon in 1953 from Goa (then under Portuguese rule), among them a portrait of Afonso de Albuquerque, Governor and Captain-General from 1509 to 1515, and a key figure in Portuguese history on account of his conquest of Goa.

However, X-ray studies done in Lisbon in 1953 revealed that the iconic portrait taken to be Albuquerque—with a long grey beard and a knot at the end—and reproduced in history books and school texts in Portugal—was in fact that of his successor and bitter rival, Lopo Soares de Albergaria (Governor of Goa from 1515 to 1518). This unsettling discovery was restricted to a small circle of conservators and academicians. Until the 1970s, Portugal was a dictatorship, and did not want to rock the boat by going public with the x-ray findings by announcing that a well-loved local hero didn’t look exactly the way textbooks portrayed him. The portrait was retouched and continued to be described as Albuquerque’s.

The ‘Albuquerque’ painting was sent back to Goa in 1960. Barely a year later, in 1961, the Indian government put Operation Vijay into effect and Goa joined the Indian Union. With the Liberation of Goa, the painting moved into Indian hands. Diplomatic relations between India and Portugal were, understandably, strained, and though Portugal wanted the paintings back, it did not make an official request, explains Reis. 

What happened next is shrouded in mystery. Instead of making a request, it seems that an undercover agent, Jorge Jardim, was assigned to steal the painting from the museum. Jardim seems to have mixed up his governors (or maybe he didn’t pay attention to the misnamed portraits in his history books) and took the portrait of João de Castro (who was governor in 1545, 30 years after Albuquerque). This portrait was returned to India in 1974 as a goodwill gesture after diplomatic relations had improved, and Portugal then made an official request and acquired the ‘Albuquerque’ painting. It currently sits in the National Museum of Ancient Art (MNAA), Lisbon.

Stories of heists and art diplomacy aside, Reis says her passion for this project is “the opportunity we have for developing best practices in a shared heritage collection, using science as the language for dialogue”. And, such investigations throw fresh light on the politics of the past.

“The best painters and material available were used in the ‘hidden’ original compositions,” she says. In other words, each layer is a work of art in itself. “In time, this joint effort will allow a turning point in the appreciation and recognition of the art made in Goa. … For instance, sources mention a painter of miniature art tradition who converted to Christianity just before his death in 1560. He was christened ‘Constantino ‘as the viceroy of that time was Dom Constantino de Bragança who stood as his godfather,” she says. “Another painter is identified as ‘Camilo’ from Margão, from the 1820s.” Ironically, time and the elements have been kinder to the earlier portraits, done from the 1500s to the 1600s because they were painted on wood. The later ones, from the 1700s onwards were executed on canvas. Wood weathered better than canvas in Goa’s high humidity conditions. 

What became of the actual portrait of Albuquerque? Reis and her colleagues found him hidden behind the portrait of Nuno Álvares Botelho, who had been part of a short-lived tripartite ‘governing council’ that lasted just a year, 1629. It’s not just Albequerque who is ‘missing’. The analysis shows that the painting of Dom Francisco de Mascarenhas, Viceroy between 1581 and 1584, was ‘commandeered’ to create the one of Albergaria. For now, it’s difficult to say exactly why. Maybe new research will solve the mystery. And that’s what Reis and her team hope to find out.

Luis Dias is a physician, musician, writer and founder of Child's Play India Foundation.

Also read: How the Tibetan community in exile built bridges with food

Next Story