With a history of more than two centuries, the building which houses the country’s oldest public museum tells many stories; not only about architecture, that classify it as a building of public interest, but also about its inhabitants who impart meaning to the stones.
Construction on the building started in 1795, during the period of urban development overseen by Francisco Almada e Mendonça. Its design corresponds to the neoclassical style that had appeared in Porto and it is traditionally attributed to the city architect, Joaquim da Costa Lima Sampaio, who participated in such works as the Feitoria Inglesa and the Hospital de Santo António. The mansion served as the residence and factory of the Moraes e Castro family - prosperous businessmen and proprietors of the Fábrica de Tirador de Ouro e Prata in the Rua dos Carrancas.
According to descriptions of the time, the decoration was the subject of special care. The walls of the living rooms were covered in majestic frescoes depicting allegories and landscapes, accomplished by Italian artists, among whom Luís Chiari was the most eminent. His stuccos in the dining room and in the furniture of the music room employ a delicate ornamental grammar, inspired by Robert Adam.
Elegant and imposing, the Palácio dos Carrancas was chosen to lodge illustrious personages, not always with its owners' consent. It was the official residence of General Soult, in 1809, at the height of the Napoleonic invasions. It served as the Duke of Wellington's headquarters after the flight of the Imperial troops. General Beresford and Prince William of Nassau, among many other personages related to the allied army, stayed in the palace. During the Siege of Porto it served as head-quarters for D. Pedro IV who, fearful that the enemy artillery would strike the building, only stayed for four months.
In 1861, the mansion was transformed into a Royal Palace, acquired by D.Pedro V to serve as lodging for the sovereigns on their visits to the north of the country. Although needing repair and improvement, the building did not undergo significant alterations, except for the suppression of the factory facilities. D. Luís and D. Maria Pia, D. Carlos and D. Amélia, as well as D. Manuel II were to stay there on lengthy visits. However, apart from these royal sojourns, the palace was virtually uninhabited; a situation that worsened with the implantation of the Republic and the exile of the royal family. In his will, dated 1915 but only known after his death in 1932, D. Manuel II intended the Palace to be entrusted to the Misericórdia for the establishment of a hospital.
Since 1833 the Museu Nacional Soares dos Reis had been installed under highly unsatisfactory conditions in the building of Santo António da Cidade, in the S. Lázaro quarter. Therefore the Museum’s director, Vasco Valente, began negotiations with the State and the Misericórdia to relocate the Museum to the empty Palace. In the light of the museological concepts of the time, the building was perfectly adapted to the serve as a museum, blending architectural quality, neoclassical style and historical tradition. Under the orientation of the engineer Fernandes Sá, the conversion work began, with the Museum being inaugurated in 1942. At the time, the most notable alterations consisted of the transformation of the old factory workshops into galleries with zenithal illumination for displaying paintings, as well as the creation of another gallery, for sculpture, to house the work of Soares dos Reis himself.
With the exception of some minor alterations, the Museum was only subject to major transformation with the renovation and expansion project undertaken by the architect Fernando Távora. Starting in 1992, it evolved at a slow pace, concluding in July of 2001 to coincide with the realisation of “Porto, European Capital of Culture”.
This conversion permitted the exhibition of Portuguese painting and sculpture from the 19th and 20th centuries to be renewed along with those of the decorative arts that, for the first time, were displayed in the same space. New areas, such as an auditorium, an educational department and rooms for temporary exhibitions were created in dialogue with green spaces, the Museum being endowed with a regular programme of cultural animation. Contemporary needs were satisfied through the creation of a new reception area, cafeteria, shop, accesses to the ground floor level and the infrastructures indispensable to the internal operation of a museum; in brief - a renaissance.