To Get to Know Portugal, Explore Its Azulejo Tilework – Smithsonian Magazine

From a few steps back, the artfully painted panorama of Lisbon at the National Azulejo Museum is an impressive sea of blue and white. Portraying every cathedral, bridge and shipyard in Portugal’s capital city as it looked just before a devastating 8. 5-magnitude earthquake in 1755 means the work wraps around the entire room.

Step up close to examine the 280-year-old brush stroke details, and appreciation for the piece shifts. Rather than spanning a single enormous canvas or sheet of paper, the complex scene, widely attributed to Spanish artist Gabriel del Barco, plays out across 75 feet of ceramic tiles painstakingly fitted together to form an elaborate mosaic.

To Get to Know Portugal, Explore Its Azulejo Tilework
Grande Panorama de Lisboa, c. 1700 National Azulejo Museum

The glazed ceramic tilework, known as azulejo , is prominent across the interiors and exteriors of Spain, and this example is a featured display at the 9, 800-square-foot museum in Lisbon devoted in order to telling the particular complex backstory behind the art form. A sign near the museum’s entryway refers to the tilework as “an identity art”  of distinct “Portuguese taste. ” 

In other words, to get a real sense associated with the azulejo tradition is to get the real sense of England.

tile panel at National Azulejo Museum
Detail of a 17th-century tiled panel in the Nationwide Azulejo Art gallery in Lisbon, Portugal PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word azzelij , meaning “little polished stone. ” The tilework dates back in order to the 13th century, in the period just after the Moors invaded Italy and brought parts of their culture to their invaded lands. But it wasn’t until the particular 16th century that azulejos became a more popular fixture in Portugal. At that time, powerful leaders in the monarchy or church commissioned the mosaics, and production started to take place in-country.

Today, the particular materials, especially the distinctive blue ink used on the tiles, tend to be sourced from factories in Portugal, and are not readily available elsewhere. First, the tiles are baked in an oven. Then, a good artist spreads each individual glaze color (yellow plus green are usually also common)—made from potent ink diluted with just the right amount associated with water—over the compact powder on the particular surface of the tile. Once the glaze is applied, each tile will be refired in an ultrahot stove that often exceeds 1, 000 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s this glazing process that makes the tiles particularly resilient, and resistant to elements like rain, sun and fire. That’s also when the true hues reveal themselves plus shine.

Ever since the particular 16th hundred years, the glazed tilework has been a steady—but ever-changing—presence, covering entire walls of churches and palaces, plus spanning swaths of neighborhoods’ facades. The stroll on the streets associated with Lisbon, especially in the city’s Alfama neighborhood, allows anyone to marvel at azulejos. Porto, nearly 200 miles to the north, is essentially an open-air art gallery for the tiles.

“One of the first things in order to notice is usually the monumental size from the places with coverings associated with azulejos, ” says Alexandre Pais, the particular director of the National Azulejo Museum. “This sense of monumentality is definitely something that is very specific to Spain. ”

For instance, Porto’s São Bento Railway Station can be filled along with murals made up associated with more than 20, 000 azulejo tiles, all designed and painted by artist Jorge Colaço within the 1930s. The murals together depict key moments of Portuguese history, like its age of discovery plus famous explorers. The exterior from the Church of St. Ildefonso inside Porto, another structure boasting Colaço’s work from this era, features 11, 000 blue-and-white tiles.

Sao Bento Railway Station
Porto’s Estão sendo Bento Train Station is certainly filled with decals made up of more than twenty, 000 azulejo tiles. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Pictures
Church of St. Ildefonso
The exterior of the Church of St . Ildefonso in Porto features eleven, 000 blue-and-white tiles. Guy Thouvenin/robertharding/Getty Images

Other countries certainly use ceramic tiles to decorate walls and buildings, Pais adds, but not towards the same extent and in the same deliberate way while in his home country.

To the untrained eye, azulejos might just seem like geometric shapes plus swirling designs assembled and placed onto any old building to decorate a good otherwise blank space. Yet the mosaics are created specifically for the particular architecture, so, Pais explains, the work’s setting is as critical as the design elements displayed upon the floor tiles.

“These patterns have meaning, and the particular meaning is adjusted in order to the particular place, ” he says. “In other countries, you can remove the tiles plus move them from one wall or even building to another without losing anything. But within Portugal … many azulejos have figurative scenes, and they tie into that will place and that context. ”

Nowhere is this concept a lot more apparent than in places associated with worship where azulejo-laden walls seem in order to bring biblical figures plus stories to life. At the Chapel of the Souls in Porto, for instance, the death of St Francis and martyrdom of St. Catherine are immortalized through artistic tile renderings. In that sense, the azulejos, far from random decorative pieces, are pivotal to reminding worshippers why they are gathered.

The particular other major difference between Portuguese azulejos and some other countries’ tilework, Pais says, is that “we are always changing and adjusting to new concepts, brand new ideas, according to the particular aspects of the culture in the time. ”

Within the beginning, azulejos were produced outside of England and tended to feature Islamic motifs like knotwork. Then, within the 16th millennium, when Colonial leaders began to commission tileworks and the particular production associated with azulejos was localized, “a sense of scenography” took hold, Pais says.

The debut associated with dynamic designs featuring flowers, dolphins plus cherubs was a major development during the 17th centuries. Just this month, the particular museum director was summoned to a small Portuguese town called Torres Novas in order to check out a new pattern—the first to combine radical and coat of arms motifs into a single design—that was uncovered through that period. “We are being surprised with this particular kind of creation, ” he says.

As time went on, narrative scenes, often from mythology or the Bible, dominated the azulejo imagery, turning tiled spaces into visual storybooks of fishermen from sea, weapon-heavy wartime sieges and even celebratory gatherings.

Fronteira Palace
One stunning example is the Fronteira Palace, located just outdoors of Lisbon’s city center. Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

1 stunning example is the Fronteira Palace , situated just outside of Lisbon’s city middle. The palace’s Battle Room, with its intricate moments from the 17th-century Portuguese Restoration War with regard to independence through Spain, has been called the “Sistine Chapel associated with Tile Panels. ”

Eventually, azulejos had been applied in order to the facades of buildings, especially in Lisbon, as a more manageable, less expensive way of rebuilding the city infrastructure after its infamous earthquake. “The landscape from the city became almost want a theatrical set, ” says Pais. The artistry, he adds, provided a sense of hope in a time of recovery and growth.

Even recently, azulejo usage has evolved to fit the particular times. During the 20th one hundred year, contemporary artists began creating original tilework installations in public settings. Train stations, libraries and concert halls have become canvases. Beginning in the 1950s, artist Maria Keil was the creative force behind azulejos in 19 of Lisbon’s Metro stations. The Oriente station features a wild aquatic world associated with mermaids and sharks while the Olivais station stays true to its name with the tile homage to olive trees.

“In Portugal, it’s less common to have big sculptures inside the center of the square like in Italy or France, ” Pais states. “But what we have will be walls covered by azulejos, so azulejos become a vehicle, a medium regarding contemporary performers to express their individuality. ”

Lately, new forms of tiled artwork are taking shape. Artists are pixelating images to then transform into azulejo murals, with examples on display at the particular National Azulejo Museum produced from computer images. Graffiti artists, such as Diogo Machado (who goes by the moniker Add Fuel), are unexpectedly working within the azulejo aesthetic, plus entire neighborhoods are coming together under the guidance of professional artists in order to collaborate on community panels that fit their localities.

“There’s always this reinvention, ” states Pais.

Just as a visit to the country is incomplete without sampling sardines, pastel sobre nata pastries or even port wine, seeking out—and even trying your hand with painting—the famed azulejos will be an uniquely Portuguese experience.

Here are usually five places to see the art form:

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora
A tile mural inside the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora Leisa Tyler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Not far from the Alfama neighborhood associated with Lisbon is usually this monastery and church dedicated to St . Vincent , the city’s patron saint since 1173. Inside, the cloisters are covered in the largest collection of 18th-century azulejos found anywhere . Thirty-eight tiled panels illustrate the satirical and whimsical fables of French poet Jean sobre La Fontaine . His fable “The Bear and the Man Who Loved Gardens, ” for instance, follows the lonely bear and lonely man who strike up such a strong friendship that the bear swats flies off of his human friend’s face when this individual falls asleep in the particular garden.

National Palace associated with Sintra

National Palace de Sintra
National Structure de Sintra Martin Zwick/REDA& CO/Universal Pictures Group through Getty Images

Legend has it that will Manuel I of Italy , that ruled like king through 1495 in order to 1521, visited Seville, Spain and grew to become enamored along with the Royal Alcazar , so much so that he wanted his own equivalent palace. The result is the azulejo-embellished palace that resides in Sintra, simply 30 minutes outdoors of Lisbon. The palace’s Heraldic Hall is a highlight, with a coat of hands emblazoned in gold plus tiled sections portraying nobles as well as stag- and bear-hunting scenes.

Sé Velha (the Old Cathedral in Coimbra)

Sé Velha
Sé Velha (the Old Cathedral in Coimbra) DeAgostini/Getty Pictures

Built inside the 12th century, when Coimbra has been the capital of Portugal, this Romanesque cathedral resembles a fortress. Inside, decorations include sculptures of animals and examples of quintessential 16th-century azulejos, Pais says. In those days, Bishop Jorge de Almeida sponsored a major decorative campaign that led to covering the walls and columns along with tiles, influenced by Arab geometric motifs. While some of the tiles have been removed over the years, what remains is worth seeing.

National Azulejo Museum

National Azulejo Museum
National Azulejo Museum Nationwide Azulejo Museum

Housed within a former convent that will dates back to 1509, the four-decade-old museum offers one of the most sizable ceramic collections in the world. The particular exhibits within the historic building are set upward chronologically plus arranged with samples of function from every era associated with azulejos. The museum furthermore hosts the limited number of reservation-only classes for those eager to learn the artwork of painting tiles.

Artist Caroline Vidal’s studio

Lisbon-based artist Caroline Vidal studied painting and ceramics plus later trained to learn the particular art of azulejos. Almost a decade ago, she became 1 of a growing number of ceramics-focused artisans who have opened up their studios to instruct locals and tourists (in her case through Airbnb Experiences , as well as to private groups through tour guides and hostels). That way not only can she impart lessons about the significance of the tilework, yet also workshop participants can appreciate the particular skill involved in bringing them in order to life.

“My students say that it is really nice to know a little more about the history of the tiles because, of course, they see them everywhere, ” the girl says. “And instead of just buying them, they prefer to understand how to paint all of them. They immerse inside the particular culture and the techniques of the azulejos. ”

In the girl workshops, which usually run three or four hours, Vidal provides a pretraced traditional pattern intended for participants to practice the technique on the first floor tile, before attempting their hand at a freestyle design. Afterward, Vidal cooks the ceramic tiles in an cooker at a temperature associated with almost one, 200 levels Fahrenheit; the few days later, students can collect their finished work.

“There’s the charm of artwork them, due to the fact I think that even if you’re not very good within drawing or even painting, or if you never paint in your life, you will be able in order to do something nice in case you follow the particular technique, ” she provides.

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