Look and learn
Jerónimos Abbey of Santa Maria By Paulo Pereira. Scala, 2002. 128pp. £14.95
The National Palace, Sintra By José Custódio Viera da Silva. Scala 2002. 128pp £14.95
UNESCO has now designated more than 700 World Heritage Sites, scattered around the globe; UK ones include Stonehenge, Durham Cathedral, and the former coal-mining landscape of Blaenafon in South Wales.
In an identical format, Scala has just published guides to two Portuguese sites on the UNESCO list. The Jerónimos Abbey at Belém, just west of Lisbon, dating mostly from the early 16th century, is monumental in scale and richly embellished. The monastery's church, entered via a radically compressed space beneath an upper choir, is astonishing (above left): its rib-vaulted nave soars 25m high, supported on six freestanding, giant pillars, boldly enclosing the maximum space with minimum means.
The carved-stone ornamentation, which colonises the buildings with a profusion of figures, foliage, and symbolic motifs, is more problematic. To eyes that today are probably more attuned to refined Swiss 'boxes', the monastery's surfaces can seem congested and overwrought; certainly, the adornment is more telling when - as in the nave or on the long south facade - there are blank stone walls in sight to offset it.
Further west of Belém, against a backdrop of wooded hills, stands the National Palace of Sintra, whose accretive, informal layout of rooms big and small, of gardens and courtyards, reflects three main campaigns of building between the 14th and 16th centuries.
The interior is rich in decorative details, especially in glazed tiles, which - like the water that, in pools or fountains, punctuates a visit to the palace - show that Portugal's vanquished Arab rulers left a lasting legacy.
But more than any detail, what visitors probably remember most is the great picturesqueness of the complex from almost any angle: its varied volumes and irregular massing, its tiled roofs, its whitewashed walls - above all, the two huge conical chimneys above its kitchens, which act as the visual anchor round which all else rotates. They give the National Palace a memorably individual profile without the gratuitous gestures of some familiar names today.
Scala's guidebooks to both monastery and palace are a model of their kind. The text is accessible but has real substance, and is reinforced by an index and bibliography; colour photographs are abundant, balancing details and the broader view; plans are provided; and there are none of the faux naif drawings that disfigure some English Heritage guides.
We should follow Scala's example in the treatment of UNESCO's UK sites - I look forward to the same sort of volume on Blaenafon.