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Lisbon’s Gulbenkian Museum

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon’s excellent Gulbenkian Museum offers an exquisite sweep through five millennia of art history, displaying easy-to-appreciate art from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, the Moors, China, Christianity, the Renaissance, and more.

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The Gulbenkian Museum offers one of the most enjoyable museum experiences in all of Europe. The cool, uncrowded, gorgeously lit museum displays only a few exquisite works from each epoch. Visitors stroll across the globe through five millennia of human history, appreciating our ancestors by seeing objects they considered beautiful.

Five thousand years ago, Egyptian civilization brought an unprecedented refinement to humankind. This feline-topped coffin held the mummified remains of a cat.

Mesopotamian reliefs remind us that it was in the Fertile Crescent -present-day Iraq — that writing was invented.

Centuries later, but still long before Christ, the Greeks took civilization to new heights. This vase, decorated with scenes of half-human satyrs chasing human women, reminds us of the rational Greeks' struggle to overcome their barbarian, animal-like urges.

The collection helps bring to life the mysterious world of the Moors who ruled this part of Europe through the Middle Ages. They came from an Arabic and Muslim realm where ornately-patterned tiles, and fine glass lamps decorated mosques and palaces.

In the 1500s, Portuguese sailors began trading with China. Among the many treasures they brought home were blue-and-white Ming ceramics which became all the rage, inspiring the Delftware of Holland and Portugal’s azulejo tiles.

The creativity of medieval Europe was devoted mostly to its Christian faith. Foldup altarpieces 8 inches tall helped travelers worship. Early Bibles and religious books were richly decorated. Illuminated manuscripts like these came with some of Europe’s finest pre-Renaissance art.

Later, Renaissance and Baroque painters celebrated God’s creation in the faces of ordinary people, whether Ghirlandaio's fresh-faced young maiden, Frans Hals' wrinkled old woman, or Rembrandt's portrait of an old man, whose crease-lined hands tell the story of his life.

Gulbenkian’s collection of furniture once actually owned by French kings is a royal homeshow. It shows off the Louis XIV style — ornate, with curved legs and animal-clawed feet, and the Louis XVI style — straight-legged, tapered, and more modern.

Follow the progression of Europe’s increasingly refined styles from stormy Romanticism (like this tumultuous shipwreck by Turner) to Pre-Raphaelite dreamscapes (like this Mirror of Venus), to the glinting, shimmering Impressionism of Monet…Renoir…and the Englishman John Singer Sargent.

And finish your walk through Gulbenkian’s garden of manmade beauty with the nubile Art Nouveau glasswork and jewelry of the French designer Rene Lalique.