Portuguese Azulejos

Coming to Portugal by car, the land begins mountainous and sparsely populated. There are sheep, rocks and dust – not an immediate change from Spain, except that the land suddenly feels tipped inexorably toward the sea. This isn’t the Mediterranean, it’s the open ocean, and a traveler can feel that they’re sliding down towards a hard break between shore and water. There, at the westernmost extreme of continental Europe, met by salt and seawind, one finds themselves confronted by houses that shine, clad in beautiful colors and patterns. Azulejos, in Portuguese, the tiles that cover these buildings are a distinctive and amazing part of this land.
Tiles are as Portuguese as salt cod or lonely shepherds, and come in a staggering array of shades (mostly of blue) and designs. Near the coast, everything is tiled. They’re distinctive as much for their individuality as for anything else, with whole blocks of buildings bursting with color, each façade different.
The azulejos are a holdover from pre-reconquista Iberia, when the Moors controlled the peninsula. The patterns have evolved from early designs, and the basic tin-glazing and shaping technique is little changed. Brought to Portugal in the 1400's from Morocco and Algeria, the ceramics are used to reflect sunlight, trap cold air and keep houses cool during the hot summers. Also, the tiling helps preserve the mortar and soft stone of Portuguese seaside houses, protecting them from damp and rain.
Initially, the ceramics were produced in single lots, with a workshop creating one pattern and color for an individual building. In the 1700's, the great earthquake of Lisbon flattened the city, and produced an unprecedented demand for new tiles. At the same time, Portuguese colonies - particularly in Brazil - were beginning to use Azulejos, and more shipments were needed to satisfy the growing appetite for them. This led to standardizing and mass-production, with simpler, more neo-classical designs.
Some older tile scenes still survive in the country - some even in Lisbon, like this wall in the Madre de Deus Convent. This older, Delft-style type is something of a period-specific thing, though newer murals do exist dating from the 20th century, when azulejos had a bit of a revival.
The tile museum (the Museo do Azulejo) in Lisbon is fascinating and informative, but it feels sterile. This isn’t a medium that does well in neat exhibits. Portugal is a living gallery of tiles, and part of their appeal is their usefulness and cracks. They are out in the elements on the street, subjected to ocean storms and graffiti spray cans.
Maybe the most arresting sight in the museum, we came across a woman carefully cleaning and restoring an overwhelming hoard of old ceramic.
The azulejos are also part of an old way of life, crystalized in a way that’s somewhat unique to this country. Mostly untouched by the great wars, Portugal – even and especially in Lisbon – is an old place of hung laundry and odd angles, cobblestones and crumbling beerhalls. After the great earthquake of 1755, Lisbon was rebuilt and then left to sit, almost untouched. The azulejos of that time have lasted and become part of the language of the architecture. Houses are still built with the tile, old buildings remain as vibrant as when they were first constructed.
Architecturally, azulejos are what a traveler always hopes for. So much of Europe is modern or rebuilt, or just not quite place-specific enough. Portuguese tiles are immediately connected to a sense of a specific landscape and history, like the curved rooflines of Japan or the adobe of the American southwest. Seeing them in use, one gets excited about the differences that are out there, the beauty that exists all over the world. They stand out in the mind afterward, and are ever-intriguing at the time.
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