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Azulejos - Portugal: The art of Tile Painting Classic & Contemporary

Thinking of redecorating – Inspiration from Portugal – Classic and Contemporary Azulejos

Tiles (called azulejos) are everywhere in Portugal. Decorating everything from the walls of churches and monasteries to palaces, ordinary houses, park seats, fountains, shops, and railway stations. They often portray scenes from history, or simply serve as street signs, nameplates or house numbers.

Although they are not a Portuguese invention (the use of glazed tiles began in Egypt) they have been used more imaginatively and consistently in Portugal than in any other nation. They became an art form and by the 18th century no other European country was producing as many tiles for such a variety of purposes and in so many different designs. Today, they remain a very important part of the country's architecture.

After the Gothic period, most large buildings had extensive areas of flat plastered interior walls needing some form of decoration. These empty architectural spaces produced the art of the fresco in Italy, in Portugal, the art of the azulejo.

The term azulejo comes from the Arabic word az-zulayj, roughly translating - "polished stone." The Moors despite their long presence and influence, the azulejos were actually introduced via Spain in the 15th century, well after the Christian reconquest. No tile work from the Moorish occupation survives in Portugal. King Manuel I, dazzled by the Alhambra Palace in Granada (Spain) decided to have his palace in Sintra decorated with the same rich ceramic tiles. The first, imported from Seville and in accordance with Islamic laws, portrayed no human figures, only geometric patterns. Gradually the Portuguese painters weaned themselves off ornamental decoration and incorporated human or animal figures in their designs.

The dominant colors were blue, yellow, green and white. In the 17th century, large carpet-like tiles used just white and blue, the fashionable colors at the time of the Great Discoveries and influenced by the Ming Dynasty porcelain from China. They now portrayed Christian legends, historical events and were not simply decorative they also served as a construction material protecting against damp, heat and noise.

Elaborately painted they fell out of favour with the cultural elite upper classes who despised them as fit for the poor people in the early 20th century.  They have once again been embraced for their national heritage value. The art form of the azulejos revival started in the 1950s, Lisbon’s first metro station designers wanted a low-maintenance, easy way to make the underground spaces feel less separate from the outside world. Parque and Restauradores stations, the most impressive examples among the seven originally built stations, are covered in geometric-patterned tile, many of which are the work of the prolific Portuguese artist Maria Keil. Her decorative flair features in 19 of Lisbon’s stations. If Keil’s work helped revive azulejo interest, then the 1998 World Exposition transformed the art itself. When Lisbon was awarded Expo ‘98, city authorities decided that the formerly derelict riverside site was the ideal location to house the international showcase – and that a new metro line was needed to connect the site to the city, providing several additional outlets for azulejo artists. Out went Keil’s safe geometric designs; in came storytelling. At Alameda Station, Costa Pinheiro added images of navigators and ships to reflect Portugal’s seafaring history. At Olivais, Nuno Siqueira and Cecília de Sousa painted olive trees on the tiles, representing the grove that once stood in the location. And at Oriente, the exit station for the Expo site, artists from five continents were given their own space to create individual works with a linking maritime theme. At Cais Do Sodre, giant Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbits cover the train tunnel. At Alto do Moinhos boats butt heads, writers brandish quills and a donkey bucks. Many of the newer works dotted around Lisbon and the rest of Portugal are collaborations with the Galeria Ratton, which opened in 1987. Located just west of the Bairro Alto district, the gallery’s frequently changing exhibitions showcase local and international tile artists, and it facilitates major public installations like those in new train stations across Portugal. “The main objective was to close the gap between contemporary art and traditional tile painting,” said gallery co-owner Tiago Monte Pegado. “It’s about discovering a new form of expression. We never take a drawing that already exists – it’s always new for the tiles.”

Perhaps the centerpiece of Azulejos is the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in the convent museum dedicated to preserving tile art from around the country and across the centuries.

In Lisbon's Tile Museum, visitors can trace the development of tiles in Portugal from their beginnings to the present. Other outstanding displays are found in Lisbon's Sao Vicente de Fora Church and Fronteira Palace , in Porto's Sao Bento Station, Almancil's Sao Lourence Church, Bucaco's palace, Lamego's Nossa Senhora dos Remedios church, and in several of Evora's churches and university.

Today Portuguese tile factories also export to northern Europe, and azulejos by contemporary artists can be seen even in many of Lisbon's Metro stations. They are also tempting buys, especially in Lisbon, Sintra and Algarve. Most visitors to Portugal end up buying a tile as a souvenir, which can be remarkably inexpensive. Both the Ancient Kingdoms (northern Spain & Portugal) and Castles & Palaces (Spain & Portugal) tours offer many opportunities to view and appreciate the artistry of the Azulejos of Portugal.