Discovery: Ordered Tumult

DISCOVERY by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1991)

translated by Richard Zenith (original here)
Green-muscled ocean
Idol of many arms like an octopus
Convulsive incorruptible chaos
Ordered tumult
Contorted dancer
Surrounding the taut ships
We traversed row on row of horses
Shaking their manes in the trade winds
The sea turned suddenly very young and very old
Revealing beaches
And a people
Of just-created men still the colour of clay
Still naked still in awe


We almost literally stumbled upon the Portuguese Discovery Monument on Ocean Avenue in Newport, RI, after driving through a flooded roadway on a chilly, windy evening,


and finding ourselves suddenly confronted by a park, by sculpture, by a strange and wild geometry on the edge of this glitzy and most civilised town.


We had no idea what this was, but we parked in the large lot and, fighting the springtime gale and sprinkling rain in this very exposed part of the world — “where land, sea, and sky meet” — we tried to fathom it.


It turns out we were in Brenton Point State Park, on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island — the Atlantic Ocean steps away, the Newport downtown and mansions a few miles away — where this stark, modern, otherworldly Portuguese Discovery Monument is sited. The location was chosen in part because of its similarity to Sagres, in southern Portugal, where Prince Henry the Navigator’s nautical school, founded in 1419, was said to be located (though there is debate over whether there was a school as such at all: “It is traditionally suggested that Henry gathered at his villa on the Sagres peninsula a school of navigators and map-makers. However modern historians hold this to be a misconception. He did employ some cartographers to chart the coast of Mauritania after the voyages he sent there, but there was no center of navigation science or observatory in the modern sense of the word, nor was there an organized navigational center.” Source: Wikipedia, reference cited there) . In any case, those who learned cartography, navigation, astronomy, and other maritime skills there were the legendary Portuguese explorers who discovered and mapped the coasts of Africa, Asia, and South America, and who also “discovered and perfected the North Atlantic Volta do Mar (the “turn of the sea” or “return from the sea”), [which was] a major step in the history of navigation, when an understanding of oceanic wind patterns was crucial to Atlantic navigation.”

The monument at Brenton Point — which was a strategic military defensive location during the Revolutionary War and World War II, designated a state park in 1976 — is a contemporary version of the compass rose located at Sagres. Originally conceived by Arthur Raposo of Middletown, RI, as a way to recognize Portuguese-American heritage and specifically, to pay homage to the lost-at-sea Portuguese navigator, Miguel Corte-Real, who may have come ashore in New England, the monument was dedicated in 1988 in memory of the Portuguese navigators and all those who assisted in the discovery of the maritime routes during Portugal’s Age of Discovery (1394 to 1524). Besides Prince Henry, the explorers honored included Vasco da Gama, discoverer of the sea route to India; Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil; Ferdinand Magellan, first to circumnavigate the globe; Diogo Cão, first to arrive at the Congo River; João Vaz Corte-Real, who may have discovered Greenland and Newfoundland; Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to navigate around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, and others.


The original monument, made of up of 18 elements, was designed by sculptor João Charters de Almeida, who was born in Lisbon in 1935 (his Imaginary Village, consisting of five high white granite pillars, is installed on Île Sainte-Hélène in Montreal). The elements were 16 sandstone “thimbles,” as they were called, ranging from 5 to 8 feet tall, modelled on bollards found in Sagres; a central 20-foot-tall obelisk called a landmark, to represent the land-mark that navigators installed on the land they discovered, highly visible from the sea (in Portuguese, a padrão); and an 8-foot-diameter sandstone sphere, an abstraction of an armillary sphere (how it works: animation), a navigational instrument that’s one of Portugal’s most significant and enduring symbols (the sphere is included on the country’s flag). All these elements were carved out of a buff-colored sandstone quarried in Vila Vicosa, Portugal, and together weighed over 100 tons. They were arranged at Brenton Point in a three-quarter circle, symbolising the three-quarters of the world discovered by the Portuguese navigators in Age of Discovery, with the thimbles or bollards inclined at 15 degrees around the landmark, to suggest their upward-looking orientation to it.

The monument was not an immediate hit at its inauguration in June 1988. In 1989, Portuguese President Mario Soares squeezed in a trip to the monument for a second dedication ceremony, of its informational plaque, during a weeklong visit that included a meeting with President George H. W. Bush and a trip to Disneyland in California. His planned visit was reported in an archived UPI story, which added,

“The unfinished monument has caused a controversy among local residents who say it is ugly. ‘It was there to enhance the landscape but I don’t call that enhancement,’ said Agnes Curtis, co-chairwoman of the Brenton Point Association. ‘It’s ugly, ugly. That’s my way of looking at it.’ Others, including Rhode Island Gov. Edward DiPrete [who was instrumental in establishing the site], have said they do not understand the sculpture. The finished monument will have a plaque explaining the meaning of its huge, carved stones.”


Portuguese sandstone proved to be no match for wind, salt, and storms on the Rhode Island coast. In less than 10 years, by 1997, the Portuguese sandstone was crumbling, and by 2001 the entire monument was beginning to collapse. It was disassembled in 2002, and in 2007 most of it was demolished because of safety concerns. Apparently, when bobcat equipment pushed over the center column and the surrounding bollards, they “crumbled in a cloud of dust.”

And there is languished until about 2012, when a landscape architecture group was hired to reconstruct the monument and to “expand the interpretive aspects of the abstract sculpture.”  The new version, constructed and erected in three phases from 2012 to 2017,  was rededicated in Sept. 2014, and consists of 14 thimbles (not 16) set at cardinal points (or compass points) around the central landmark, all carved from North Jay White granite from Maine, laid out on less than an acre of grassy lawn reaching to the sea.


The sandstone globe did not crumble and was kept as part of the restored monument.



It includes interpretive panels and lines of the compass inset into the ground, as was originally planned for the earlier version but never happened.


The renovated monument was funded with $500,000 from the state, with the Portuguese-American population of southern New England raising the remaining funds.


I’d like to revisit it sometime when the weather is warmer, but stumbling onto it on a stormy evening, with the sun setting over a rough and wind-blown sea, evoked something of the tumult of ocean sailing, even as the compass-ordered monument stood by — still, mute, both watchful and unseeing.






THE NAVIGATORS by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1991)
translated by Richard Zenith (original here)
Multiplicity makes us drunk
Astonishment leads us on
With daring and desire and calculated skill
We’ve broken the limits –
But the one God
Keeps us from straying
Which is why at each port we cover with gold
The sombre insides of our churches




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