José da Costa e Silva was born in Vila de Povos, Lisbon, on 25 July 1747.
At the age of twenty-two, he left for Bologna along with João Ângelo Brunelli, sent by King D. José to study civil architecture at the Clementina Academy. In Italy, he studied with the masters Petronio Francelli and Carlos Bianconi, furthering his knowledge on Architecture, Geometry, Arithmetic, Perspective, Mechanics and Hydrostatics. At the Academy of Bologna, he received many awards, and in 1775 he was appointed Honourable Scholar. He travelled across Genoa, Venice, Florence, Rome and Vicenza, where he took the opportunity to observe the works of Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), know the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the Royal Palace of Caserta, by Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773).
Before returning to Portugal, he submitted the project for a royal palace to the Academy of St. Lucas, which earned him the title of Merit Member of this academy.
In the meantime, in 1779 the University of Coimbra invited him to take up the position of Architecture Professor, but José da Costa e Silva declined the invitation. In 1780, he returned to Lisbon, bringing with him a new architectural style –Neo-Classicism –, which he had learned at the Academy Clementina and in his travels in Italy; he also brought titles and a diploma, and a collection of drawings and treaties on architecture.
In Lisbon, he became a respected professional. In 1781, he was appointed Professor of Civil Architecture at the Royal Academy of Design. Eight years later, José da Costa e Silva was responsible for designing the building of the Royal Treasury, which would be the first public building in the Neo-Classical style in Lisbon. In 1792, he designed S. Carlos Theatre, which replaced the Bibiena Theatre, destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, inspired by the Italian theatres of Milan and Naples. He also designed the project for the Asylum of Military Invalids of Runa, in Torres Vedras, for D. Maria Francisca Benedita. He was responsible for giving his opinion on the Ajuda Palace, along with Francisco Xavier, and, according to Regina Anacleto, he projected the Brejoeira Palace in Monção, Minho.
In 1811, four years after the departure of the Portuguese royal family to Brazil, the monarch called José da Costa e Silva to Rio de Janeiro. He arrived in Brazil on 24 July, the "First Architect of Royal Construction Works", accompanied by his three sisters, two nieces and a servant. Here, he proceeded to work on small intervention works in buildings already erected and designed some projects, besides helping in the reconstruction of S. Salvador da Baía, a city devastated by the rains in 1813. He also designed two sarcophagi for Prince Pedro Carlos (who had died in 1812) and built a balcony in Rio de Janeiro, used as a stage for the acclamation ceremonies of D. João VI.
In 1818, José da Costa e Silva sold his collection of art objects, which consisted of cameos, prints, paintings, models and books to the Library of Rio de Janeiro for one thousand and six hundred réis.
He died in Rio de Janeiro on 21 March 1819.