The most ancient documental evidence concerning the royal plan to build a convent dedicated to St Anthony, at Mafra, is a decree signed on 26& September 1711. The King, Dom Jogo V, originally intended to donate the institution to no more than thirteen Capuchin friars from Arrabida, who were to observe the strict vows of poverty of this minor brotherhood of the Franciscan Order. The exact site was decided upon in 1713, and by 1716 the land had been purchased and marked out, and work began on the foundations. On 17th November 1717, in the presence of the King and his court, the first stone was laid at an uncommonly flamboyant ceremony celebrated by the Patriarch of Lisbon. The "most grandiose architectural endeavour attempted in Portugal for many a long day," had begun. (Pimentel: 1992 p.157) according to the design of Johann Friedrich Ludwig, a German watchmaker, who had gained much from the stimulating, innovative artistic environment of the Italy of his day.
Financed by the abundance of Brazilian gold and driven by the monarch's ambition to rival the splendour of Papal Rome, the works grew out of all proportion. After several alterations, the King himself ordered the living quarters to be increased to accommodate three hundred friars, whilst guaranteeing the funds required for their construction. At this time, the works employed 50 thousand workers, in addition to the seven thousand soldiers who were involved in auxiliary work. Although the Basilica was consecrated in 1730, the building was far from finished, and works were to continue for a number of years after the death of the King, in 1750. His successor, Dom Jose, forged ahead with the works until 1755, when they were forced to slow down as part of the workforce was transferred to Lisbon because of the earthquake, but the King never failed to comply with his father's wishes.
Although the fundamental influences of Mafra's design have their origins in seventeenth-century Rome, in a synthesis of aesthetic and ideological principles inspired by the disparate artistic works of Bemini, Borromini and Carlo Fontana, the design undoubtedly owes a great deal to the consolidated traditions of Portuguese architecture, exemplified in S. Vicente de Fora and Paco da Ribeira, whilst certain features have their roots in Central European architecture, especially the characteristic bulbous domes that crown the wings on either side of the frontage.
The building has an imposing monumental presence, which is the fruit of its outstanding architectural design, particularly of the central part, the Basilica, and a discerning choice of materials and decorative features, which provided it with an almost unique splendour in the Europe of its day: polychromatic marbles from different origins; the remarkable group of sculptures in the porch of the Church - the greatest of its kind in the world, with 58 marble statues commissioned from the leading Roman sculptors of their time ; the two carillons, each with 48 bells, from Antwerp; the unique grouping of six organs, with their own repertoire, designed and built for the same space, between 1792 and 1807; the Royal Hunting Park, a vast, walled enclosure with a 21 km perimeter, surrounding agricultural land and forest, which today is an important genetic reserve boasting a biogenetic diversity and range of species that are the fruit of the considerable amount of work which has been invested in its management. In addition to its role, first and foremost, as a hunting reserve for the courtly education and delight of princes, the Hunting Park always provided food and firewood for the religious community and even the Royal Household. The National Palace is endowed with an architectural heritage of the greatest importance, including Dom Carlos' Hunting Lodge; the Palace's furnishings with their remarkable eighteenth-century Italian masterworks of painting and sculpture; the magnificent Library, decorated with gilded ornamentation in Rococo style, with thousands of volumes which bear witness to the extent of western knowledge along the whole of the eighteenth century, at the time of its constitution and organisation.