domingo, 23 de septiembre de 2018


Alexxa Gotthardt

Handmade panels by Viúva Lamego. Courtesy of Viúva Lamego.

I like to think that Lisbon was given the nickname “Queen of the Sea” because its tile-covered buildings resemble the precious stones that decorate crowns. Under the Portuguese sun, the painted ceramic squares glisten like gems, set across the city.
Walking through the Portuguese capital, nestled between the Tagus River and the Atlantic, you’ll find tiled façades on nearly every street. They blanket former palaces with depictions of palm fronds and strapping Portuguese heroes, as well as church walls with biblical scenes, rendered in deep blue brushstrokes. My personal favorites are less grand, but just as mesmerizing: tall apartment buildings veiled with kaleidoscopic patterns and windows tucked inside alleyways, framed by depictions of orange blossoms.
On a trip to Portugal this past summer, I was struck by the ubiquity and diversity of azulejos, as these tiles are called, and went on something of a pilgrimage to understand the origins of the tradition—and how contemporary artists, from Paula Rego to André Saraiva to Rem Koolhaas, are keeping it alive.

Cortiço & Netos. Photo by Pedro Sadio Photography. Courtesy of Cortiço & Netos.

The journey began with a trip to Lisbon’s National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo). Located within a former convent, it houses a treasure trove of the painted ceramic pieces, produced between the 15th century and the present. The earliest examples are simple: geometric bits of clay, fired and glazed in a single hue, like white, blue, and forest green. Denizens of towns across Portugal used tiles like these as pavement—a technique they adopted from the Moors, with whom they’d traded and battled since the 8th century. The term “azulejos” hints at the art form’s North African origins: It’s an adaptation of the Arabic word alzuleycha, meaning “small polished stone.”
It wasn’t until the 16th century, though, that more intricate tiles became prevalent across Portugal, and moved from streets onto the façades of buildings—often covering them completely. “Many other countries have tile art, where it is used as decoration like a tapestry,” the museum’s director, Maria Antónia Pinto de Matos, has said. “But in Portugal, it became a part of the building. The decorative tiles are a construction material as well as decoration.”
Over time, the Portuguese gave painted tiles their own stylistic spin, too. Unlike their Muslim counterparts in North Africa, the Portuguese were primarily Christian—and thus didn’t feel obligated to adhere to the teachings of the Quran, which discourages the portrayal of living things in art. In turn, a wide range of styles, from geometric patterns to figurative and narrative scenes, began to spread across Portugal’s increasingly tile-flanked streets. (Portuguese artisans had also adopted the use of tin oxide from their Italian peers; the substance allowed them to paint directly onto the tiles’ surfaces, without the hues sliding into one another, which could happen with glazes.)…………………

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