It is widely claimed that Portugal is the land of the azulejo painted tile and in no other country and by no other people has it been used on such a vast scale or in such an original way.
The origins of the azulejo date back to the early fifteenth century when it was introduced to Portugal by Arab artisans from Seville and Valencia. Its name is derived from the Arabic word al zulayj meaning polished surface. Portuguese artisans, realising that the azulejo was durable, attractive and fairly inexpensive to produce, soon began to make their own versions of it. They continued to do so for the next five centuries, embossing it with their own distinctive character and cultivating its uniquely Portuguese identity.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, azulejos were widely used throughout Portugal and its colonies to cover walls, ceilings and floors of palaces, churches and castles across the country.
Different oxides were used to create the four main colours: blue, green, yellow and brown. While early methods used only one colour per tile, the development of a revolutionary technique known as corda seca (dry string) made it possible for the entire range of colours to be used in each tile, vastly increasing its decorative potential. Fine examples of such tile panels can still be seen today in buildings such as the Sé Velha in Coimbra.
During the mid-sixteenth century, in response to demand for an inexpensive way of decorating large areas, Portuguese artisans developed a further technique known as the azulejo enxaquetado (the chequered tile), in which triangular and trapeze-shaped tiles are placed in diagonal patterns.
The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the rising popularity of the figurative tile used mainly by the church to educate the faithful. This followed the era of the Discoveries and inspiration was drawn from a combination of Christian and exotic imagery. Favourite subjects included Biblical characters, cherubs, exotic fruits, flowers and wildlife, all of which blended harmoniously with decorative backgrounds.
The eighteenth century is characterised by magnificent theatrical panels depicting historical and mythological scenes. First developed in the Netherlands and influenced by the boldly monochromatic porcelain being imported from the Far East at the time, these panels were freely painted in different shades of grey-blue on a bluish white background.
Just as their ancestors had adapted the Hispano–Moresque tile, Portuguese artisans reworked the Dutch style in an original manner. However, realising that as artisans they could not compete with their Flemish counterparts, they set up schools specifically designed to train artists in the Portuguese tile-painting tradition.
The destruction wrought by Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake provided a rich source of work for many tile painters, who were commissioned by nobles to restore their damaged homes or to decorate new ones, a trend that spawned the Real Fábrica do Rato, one of Portugal’s oldest ceramic factories first established in Lisbon in 1767.
By the late eighteenth century, the azulejo had evolved from a fairly inexpensive material produced by artisans into a highly prized decorative form practised by famous artists. Only the church and the aristocracy could afford the expense and even they were beginning to question the large budget required. In an attempt to return to a less costly type of production, the sixteenth century’s repetitive pattern was revived, resulting in the Pombaline tile with its characteristic floral motifs and stylised borders, which was significantly less expensive to produce but still relied on laborious hand painting.
In the nineteenth century, however, the industrial revolution made semi-mass production possible. The azulejo could now be made cheaply and in large quantities. Impermeable to water and readily available in two varieties of attractive, machine-printed designs, it rapidly became the most popular form of urban décor, with ceramic factories springing up all over the country.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of buildings, public squares, streets and gardens all over the country were adorned with the lively and colourful azulejo and many tiled façades dating from the nineteenth century still remain intact.
The azulejo, both mass-produced and hand-painted, retained its popularity well into the twentieth century. Tiled advertising panels were introduced and the eighteenth century tile painting tradition was revived to decorate railway stations and indoor markets all over the country. Some of the most beautiful examples depicting landscapes and scenes from rural life can be seen at Vilar Formoso station in central Portugal and at Vila Franca de Xira market east of Lisbon.
Today, at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon (National Tile Museum, indicated on the map below), a unique collection of tiles spanning more than five centuries is constantly being updated and enlarged. Housed within the magnificent sixteenth century Madre de Deus Convent, the collection continues to fascinate the thousands of people who visit the museum every year.