A pair of spectacles and a revolver that belonged to Camilo Castelo Branco

A pair of spectacles and a revolver that belonged to Camilo Castelo Branco

Contributor: Jorge Bastos da Silva

Location: Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Lapa, Porto, Portugal

Description: Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890) was a major figure of late Romanticism in Portuguese literature and one of the first who strove to live by the pen. Camilo’s bohemian existence, an incorrigibly belligerent temperament, the truculency of his social criticism, and the scandal of adultery compounded a situation which was already unfavourable to stability. In the end, blindness, together with family tragedy, led him to shoot himself. His glasses and revolver stand as tokens of a life which resonates with the Romantic myth of the writer as unheeded genius.

A professional and prolific writer whose works amount to some 23,000 pages in the standard edition, Camilo Castelo Branco was a novelist, journalist, playwright, poet, literary critic, and translator. His fiction is rated particularly highly, and ranges from extreme emotionalism and mysticism through cloak-and-dagger melodrama to scorching social satire. Literary fashion induced him to try his hand at realism and naturalism late in his career as well.

Camilo led a life of scandal, rife with scuffles with fellow writers and especially with social figures of the city of Porto whom he criticized in his writing. The most notorious episode of his life was an adulterous affair with a married woman who was a poet herself, Ana Augusta Plácido, the wife of a wealthy businessman and prestigious citizen, Manuel Pinheiro Alves. The husband having pressed charges, the lovers spent over a year in prison before being acquitted (in a rather outrageous court ruling) in 1860-61. Even in gaol, Camilo never ceased to work, and was twice visited by King Peter V (D. Pedro V), testimony to the author’s status as much as to the monarch’s boldness in expressing his interest in the field of culture. His brother and successor, King Louis (D. Luís), would create Camilo a viscount in 1885.

Despite publicly living together from the early 1860s (Manuel Pinheiro Alves dying in 1863), Camilo and Ana Plácido only married in 1888. By then the family had been hit by tragedy: their eldest son (officially Ana Plácido’s former husband’s) had died; so had their second son’s wife and daughter; and their youngest son had gone mad. Camilo himself suffered from several ailments, the most severe of which was the onset of gradual and then complete blindness. The writer had frequently been beset by financial difficulties, but inability to write meant he would be unable to provide for himself and for his family, even if the viscountcy came with a pension. Driven to despair, on 1 June 1890 Camilo committed suicide by shooting a bullet through his right temple. A few hours later he was dead.

Arrangements for his funeral were made by his close friend, João António de Freitas Fortuna, who was involved in the publication of some of his works as a printer. Two years before his death Camilo had asked to be interred in Freitas Fortuna’s family grave, in the cemetery adjacent to the church of the Brotherhood of Lapa in Porto (Igreja da Lapa). Camilo’s personal effects kept at the Lapa church include his glasses with the case, bullets and the revolver which he used to put an end to his life.

Romantic writers like Goethe and Chateaubriand, Wordsworth and Southey were graced with public honours. Yet Romanticism also cherished a myth of the writer as the unheeded genius or misunderstood martyr. A case in point was the suicide Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), lamented by the likes of Coleridge and Keats as a victim of his contemporaries’ indifference. In Resolution and Independence (1807), Wordsworth recalls “mighty Poets in their misery dead” (line 116), and it is specifically in regard to Chatterton as well as Robert Burns that he draws the melancholy conclusion:

By our own spirits are we deified:
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof come in the end despondency and madness. (lines 47-49)

In Byron’s The Prophecy of Dante (1821), the poet of the Divina Commedia declares: “Despair and Genius are too oft connected” (Canto IV, line 39). The fate of Camilo Castelo Branco resonates with this notion that the elations of Romantic vision often, if not perhaps inevitably, end in tragedy.

Date: unknown

Creator: Venerável Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Lapa, Porto, Portugal

Subject: Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890)

Media rights: Image kindly provided by Venerável Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Lapa, Porto, Portugal

Object type: personal effects of the writer Camilo Castelo Branco

Format: glass, metal, composite

Related objects: The Mausoleum for the Heart of King Peter IV of Portugal

Publisher: Venerável Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Lapa, Porto, Portugal


Cabral, Alexandre, Dicionário de Camilo Castelo Branco, Lisboa, Caminho, 1989.