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Lisbon's Renaissance

Andrea Fazzari A view from Baixa of Praça Dom Pedro IV

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Perhaps the Michelin guides are still too busy with Spain to give Portugal adequate attention, but then again, the Portuguese are not exactly masters of public relations. After countless interview requests, I'm still waiting to hear from Manuel Reis. Everyone tells me not to be offended: the man is simply too shy to talk. "Maybe it's because Portugal was such a big empire in the 15th and 16th centuries," proposes Francisco Capelo, Lisbon's resident art mogul and man-about-town. "The very idea of empire inspires nostalgia—and a feeling that you're nothing now. I think this makes the Portuguese sweeter, less aggressive. Compared with the Span-ish, we're certainly lower-profile."

Sure, the Portuguese as a whole are notorious introverts, but not Capelo himself. And thank heaven for that. A puckish firecracker with contagious joie de vivre, he invites me to flip through photo albums of his past parties and galas. It's like Where's Waldo with wardrobe by Jean-Paul Gaultier: Capelo's toothy grin pops up in every picture.

We're sitting in his Alfama town house discussing his unusual lack of Portuguese bashfulness when Capelo erupts, "I like me," and laughs. "And I like things."  A look around his house is evidence enough of that: imagine three stories stuffed with 17th-century illuminated Ethiopian manuscripts, photos by Man Ray and Tracey Moffatt, Chapman brothers sculptures, Ettore Sottsass furniture, and hundreds of Indonesian puppets. Now retired from two lucrative careers, in investment banking and the media, Capelo has become addicted to acquiring, but he's generous with his goodies. Ten percent of the Berardo Collection, the wonderful modern-art museum in nearby Sintra that Capelo and his former partner José Berardo created, was selected by Capelo. All of the 1,000 or so pieces at the Museu do Design, housed since 1999 in a corner of the Centro Cultural de Belém, 20 minutes outside the city center, were first bought for his private use. That collection—rich in works by design superstars like Gio Ponti, Arne Jacobsen, Alvar Aalto, and Michael Graves—is among the best of its kind in Europe. Capelo also hopes to create an Asian wing for the Museu de Arte Antiga in Santos, to house his Moghul and Chinese furniture and Indonesian puppets and textiles. (For now, he's content to help me look under the skirts of the marionettes in his sunroom, to prove that they are anatomically correct.) And he is in negotiations with the government to open a fashion museum in Lisbon. Among the 1,160 couture pieces he's waiting to show off are the yellow Jean Desses gown that Renee Zellweger wore to the 2001 Oscars and three gems from Christian Dior's landmark 1947 New Look. And though the minister of culture has been a little slow coming up with the right venue, Capelo is not tempted to decamp his project to Paris or London, where he has additional residences. His treasures are intended strictly for Lisbon. And why not?In a town like this, they'll be in awfully good company.


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