Walking through Lisbon it is impossible not to notice them: azulejos. The tiles adorn countless houses all over the city of Lisbon but also in other parts of Portugal. The tradition of the azulejos is one of the oldest of Portugal and dates back to the Moorish rule over the Iberian Peninsula.
5th – 15th century: Moors rule over parts of the Iberian Peninsula and import the tradition of decorative tiles from other Arabic cultures
1503: King Manuel I visits Seville, he is impressed by the use of tiles there introduces them to Portugal
1755: An earthquake destroys large parts of Lisbon, many of the new buildings are decorated with azulejos
Early 19th century: Napoleonic invades Portugal, many flee and take the tradition to Portugal's colonies, especially to Brasil
Late 19th century: Invention of silkscreen printing allows mass production
1950 and onwards: Azulejos are rediscovered by artists and the public. They are used to decorate public spaces, such as metro stations
Let’s have a look at their origin and history, the most common motives, the traditional production methods and which places are worth a visit to explore azulejos in Lisbon.
As said before, the azulejos date back to the Moorish rule over parts of the Iberian Peninsula and thus can also be found in Spain. Most prominent example is the Alhambra in Seville. The Moors imported the tradition from today’s Egypt and it dates back to even more ancient times.
Considering their origin, it is interesting to take a closer look at the term “azulejos”. It seems almost natural to assume that it comes from “azul”, which means blue in Portuguese. However, its origin can actually be found in the Arabic language. “Az-zulayj” can roughly be translated as “polished stone”. After Muslim tradition, the original tiles displayed only symbols and no living creatures.
While the Moors lost control over the Iberian Peninsula, the azulejos stayed. In 1503, King Manuel I of Portugal visited Seville. He was impressed by the application of tiles there and introduced the techniques used in Spain to his country.
It was Portugal that turned the tiles with their decorative character into an actual form of art. Portuguese artists illustrated the tiles with scenes from their countries rich history and of the Portuguese expeditions around the globe.
The earthquake of 1755 destroyed large parts of the city. Nonetheless, it also led to an increased use of azulejos. The Pombaline style was introduced with its more minimalistic motives.
In 1807, Napoleon invaded Portugal. The invasion was almost bloodless. Nonetheless, many, including the royal family, feared the Napoleonic rule and fled the country. The Portuguese colony Brasil was their primary destination. Here, the use of azulejos took an interesting turn. The climate in most parts of Brasil is more humid than in Portugal. Placing the tiles outside the houses stabilized the constructions. Once some of the "refugees" returned to their home country, they reimported this new application back from Brasil to Portugal.
In the 19th century, the invention of silkscreen printing allowed mass production of azulejos. As a result, more people decided to decorate their houses with the colourful tiles – both on the inside and on the outside. Since then, many kitchens are decorated with tiles. Typical Portuguese vegetables are the most common motive.
While the tradition had fallen out of favour at the beginning of the 20th century, its importance has been increasingly recognized since the 1950s. Contemporary tile art work can be seen in the stations "Parque" and "Restauradores" on Lisbon’s first metro line. With the Expo in 1998, additional stations were decorated with tiles.
The production of tiles is similar to the production of glass. They are baked in an oven. Until today, two traditional productions methods remain most commonly used in Portugal. The methods differ in the way the colour is applied. The standard method is to simply paint the tiles by hand and then bake them. Another way is to use "cordas", small ropes that are put on the tiles. The colour is applied and after baking the ropes are removed. This method leaves little notches on the tiles thereby creating a kinetic effect.
See below our suggested visits for azulejos in Lisbon!