A visual guide to the history of azulejo tiles in Portugal
Tiles are something you probably associate with your kitchen or bathroom but take a walk around Lisbon or Porto and you’ll see that tiles, or “azulejos” as they are called in Portugal, are works of art, turning dull apartment blocks into outdoor galleries. In fact, “azulejaria”, the art of tiles, tells us a lot about Portuguese history and culture. Though patterned tiles were first brought to Portugal by Moorish invaders from north Africa, using tiles as facades is something uniquely Portuguese.
You’ll find stunning tile displays just walking down the street but the following locations are some of our favourites for seeing some of the oldest and most authentic facades in Portugal.
1. Capela das Almas, Porto
This chapel is completely covered in traditional blue and white tiles, designed by the renowned artisan Eduardo Leite. The tiles depict scenes like the Death of Saint Francis of Assisi and the Martyrdom of Santa Catarina. Since they’re on the outside of the building, you won’t have to spend a single cent to see this cultural gem.
Rua de Santa Catarina 428, 4000-068 Porto
2. Fronteira Palace, Lisbon
This palace holds one of the largest collections of tiles in the country, with spectacular displays both inside and out. Built in the 17th century, shortly after the Portuguese won their independence back from Spain, its spectacular “Sala das Batalhas” [Battle Room], depicts epic scenes of battles against the Spanish.
Largo São Domingos de Benfica 1, 1500-554 Lisboa
3. Quinta dos Azulejos, Lisbon
This walled courtyard is an oasis of peace and tranquility in the middle of the city. Its lush gardens are full of stunning works of tile-art: depicting hunts, chivalry, and, of course, religious scenes.
Paco do Luminar, Rua Esquerda, Lisboa
4. São Bento Station, Porto
Even if you’re rushing to catch a train at this station in Porto, stop a second in the main hall to admire the gorgeous scenes by Jorge Colaço, which depict the history of transport and development of modern Portuguese society.
Praça Almeida Garrett, 4000-069 Porto
5. National Tile Museum, Lisbon
This museum is full of beautiful works from throughout the centuries, so you can really immerse yourself in the evolution of this unique craft. It also contains the beautiful Igreja da Madre de Deus, with its beautiful framed tiles and ornate decoration.
R. Me. Deus 4, 1900-312 Lisboa
Tiles of Lisbon: make the city your gallery!
From the 17th century onwards, tiles were no longer the preserve of the aristocracy or church. The newly wealthy middle-classes could afford tiles and the mass production of tiles meant that they could be used to decorate the homes of everyday people. Many large public art projects were commissioned in the 1950s so diverse abstract, experimental work took over the streets.
Avenida Infante Santo
Take a stroll along Avenida Infante Santo in Lisbon where azulejo has been used to create giant, open-air pieces of art. These include the ocean-themed “O Mar” by Maria Keil, a fishing scene by Sá Nogueira, a multicoloured cityscape by Carlos Botelho and a viaduct decorated with a rainbow of colours, designed by Eduardo Nery.
Largo do Intendente
The 18th century is often seen as having been a golden age of tile production and design. For a taste of this, head to Largo do Intendente, where you can sit at a bar and sip a beer or coffee while admiring the artwork on the façade of the former Viúva Lamego tile factory. Founded by António da Costa Lamego in 1849, the company has produced tiles for buildings that include the famous Capela das Almas in Porto.
Largo do Intendente Pina Manique, 1100-088 Lisboa
Campo de Santa Clara 124
Visit of Campo de Santa Clara 124. This apartment building is covered in beautiful baroque-inspired tiles painted by Luis Ferreira, who also decorated the building at Largo do Intendente.
While you’re visiting the oceanarium, look out for a tile panel covered in sea creatures. On closer examination, you’ll see that the tiles are all decorated with beautiful, individual geometric patterns.
Esplanada Dom Carlos I s/nº, 1990-005 Lisboa
You can check out the works of renowned abstract artist Maria Keil at the Parque, São Sebastião, Campo Grande, Picoas, Saldanha, Anjos and Arroios metro stations.
Like other cities in Portugal, Porto is full of beautiful tile-façades.“Buildings covered with such colours…it’s something you only find here,” explains Marisa from Os Azulejos do Porto [The tiles of Porto]. Together with her friend Alba, she works to preserve and promote the art of tiles.
This “unique heritage” is under threat from the construction companies tasked with redeveloping the city, who demolish old tiled buildings and discard pieces that are “hundreds of years old, made in factories that no-longer exist”. This is one of the things that motivates Alba and Marisa: as part of their self-funded project, they photograph and catalogue Porto’s beautiful tiled façades, creating a record for future generations to enjoy. They also work with local artisans to help promote their work. But it’s not without its challenges: “construction companies are almost destroying the artisans: they only want to pay a few cents for a handmade tile”, complains Alba.
How can you help
Marisa says, “tourists have actually promoted this art a lot, because they take photos and selfies with our façades and share them with the world”. This is helping to increase the awareness and popularity of this ancient artform. However, this interest also fuels a trade in tiles stolen from buildings, which are sold to tourists in antique shops or flea markets. For this reason, Alba and Marisa recommend buying new tiles, and to get them from local artisans.
To fund the project, the pair run tours of Porto, where they take visitors to see some of their favourite buildings, and chat about tiles over a cup of coffee. They also run workshops that allow tourists to learn about tile design, and make a tile themselves. With the help of people like Alba and Marisa, banks that store tiles during renovation work, and crackdown on the trade in stolen pieces- both tourists and locals will be able to enjoy this unique part of Portuguese heritage for years to come.
Special thanks to João Monteiro at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo and Marisa and Alba from Azulejos do Porto.
About the Author
David Irvine is a translator, as well as an occasional scribbler, waffler and jazz music enthusiast. In other words, he’s a pretentious sod who loves the sound of his own voice. Originally from Northern Ireland, he’s got a passion for languages and other cultures, having previously lived in Germany and Portugal. He’s also a bit of a Francophile, especially when it comes to wine and pastries.
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