10 things you didn't about the the portuguese Azulejo tiles

When we speak about Portugal, a few things come to mind: Fado and our portuguese guitar, codfish and sardines and, of course, the tiles named “azulejos”. Intimately related to our culture, there’s beautiful pieces of every size and shape, scattered around the country.

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Even though it’s an undeniable symbol of Portugal, a lot still remains unknown about this ancient art. Here’s a few curiosities about this craft art to add to your general knowledge.

1. The word azulejo comes from the arabic word “azzelij” that basically means “small polished stoned”, used by muslims to design mosaics. The meaning remains fairly the same as we consider an azulejo to be a ceramic piece, generally square shaped, where one of the sides is glazed.

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2. The azulejos entered the lives of the portuguese in 1498, when King Manuel paid a visit to Seville in Spainwhen King Manuel I paid a visit to Seville and was delighted by the shiny tiles around the city. He decided to bring this glowy art to Portugal and used it to decorate the walls of his castle: the Sintra National Palace.

Azulejo art work in Palácio Nacional de Sintra

Azulejo art work in Palácio Nacional de Sintra

3. Do you know why tiles are usually white and blue? Ever since Europe started its trading relationship with Asia, that europeans were fascinated with the elegance and fine touch of Chinese porcelain. It was difficult to manufacture because it used an ingredient that didn’t exist in Europe at the time, becoming a luxury object of great rarity and a symbol of wealth for the locals. In the seventeenth century, in an attempt to copy it, the Dutch began making tiles in the same blue and white tones as Chinese porcelain. The tiles pleased the Portuguese so much that massive imports were ordered from the Netherlands to decorate the Portuguese buildings.

Modern chinese porcelain art work

Modern chinese porcelain art work

4. Worried about the huge amount of imports from abroad, the Portuguese gave rise to a remarkable movement in the history of azulejo tiles in Portugal, the “Ciclo dos Mestres” (the cycle of masters). They start to hire renowned painters to design works in this format and begin to manufacture on a large scale. It is at this time that tile painters finally gain the status of “artists” by creating original pieces and signing their works.

Art by Manuel dos Santos, one of the most well known artists from “Ciclo dos Mestres”

Art by Manuel dos Santos, one of the most well known artists from “Ciclo dos Mestres”

5. Tiles are mostly used today for aesthetic reasons, but initially this was not their primary purpose: their waterproof glazed surface helps protect the walls of the house from damp and low temperatures. They were therefore used in wet areas such as bathrooms and kitchens for their low cost and durability.

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6. Tiles are the oldest form of "comic books" in Portugal. Sometimes even with captions below, the churches used them as a way of telling stories about saints and describing biblical moments, as books were a privilege to which few had access.

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8. Sant'Anna is the oldest tile factory in Portugal and it's still operating! Being able to withstand Lisbon's great earthquake in 1755, it has existed in the city since 1741 and still uses the handcrafted techniques of the old days. Today, more than 90% of its production is sent abroad.

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8. After the great Lisbon earthquake, the city was left in ruins and was then “invaded” by tiles. In the reconstruction of the city, instead of ordering original art works, tiles with repetitive geometric patterns were used,, so that the work was as fast and cheap as possible. These tiles became known as “Pombalinos”, with a clear reference to Marquês de Pombal, the person mainly responsible for the reconstruction of the city.

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9. Tiles have reinvented themselves over time and with each architectural style, so each tells a different story. How can we interpret them? For example, older Moorish-inspired tiles often have exaggerated weaving and complex geometric patterns, characterized by the typical Moorish horror vacui. If we look at a gothic-style tile, the animal and nature figures reign. During the Renaissance period, born in Florence, symmetries and proportions started being appreciated, and the designs were endowed with great delicacy. If we look at the Baroque period, the tiles began to be crafted in an increasingly theatrical and exuberant way, depicting scenes from the portuguese Discoveries period and daily life, allegories and biblical episodes.

Azulejo with hispanic and mourish inspiration

Azulejo with hispanic and mourish inspiration

10. Since they’re not unique from our region, tiles are used in many countries around the world, such as Spain, Italy, Turkey and Morocco. Still, Portugal is the World Tile Capital for a special reason: tiles have been used on our facades and buildings for over 500 years, without interruption. It has survived the test of time, remaining an important means of artistic expression to this day.

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Tiled decoration is one of the most striking arts of our country. Tiles are pieces that tell stories, that takes us to other times and to the artist's mind. It is our duty to keep this art alive, combining tradition with innovative and modern forms of artistic expression.

Would you like to learn more about this art and create your own original pieces?

Cerdeira is offering a unique tile production workshop, with nature as the source of inspiration. Find out more below!

Sofia Rosa