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The Painted Tiles of Portugal...
Introduced by the Moors, the art of decorative tiling has been developed in Portugal for over five centuries...
One of the most striking features of Portuguese towns and cities are the ceramic tiles, azulejos, that adorn many walls and buildings. Tiles depicting saints such as St. Anthony and the Virgin Mary appear on the front porches of countless homes, on hot bright days the sunlight bounces off the tiles, dazzling the passing viewer, whilst keeping the interiors of the homes cool.
The earliest methods of ceramic tile making were introduced into Portugal and Spain by the Moors. Favouring non-representative forms of decorative art for religious reasons, the Moors produced tiles with complex interlaced geometric patterns. The monumental masterpiece of Moorish architecture, the Alhambra in southern Spain, provides a breathtaking example of this geometric approach to design and decoration.
The azulejos, like other aspects of the Moorish empire, have long been thoroughly assimilated into Portuguese culture. Through the 15th and 16th centuries, as Portugal grew wealthier and built up its own empire, the change in culture and circumstances was reflected in the azulejos. No longer constrained by Arab religious edicts governing the depiction of humans, and with the expansion of the Portuguese empire providing plenty of new subject matter, the painters of tiles began to explore countless themes.
At the same time Italian artists developed new methods for creating and painting ceramics that spread across Europe, being introduced into Portugal by Flemish artists and being mastered by Portuguese artists such as Francisco and Marçal de Matos. The brothers oversaw the creation of monumental depictions of biblical events that can still be seen on the azulejos that cover the walls of São Roque church in Lisbon.
During the 17th century, Dutch potters from the town of Delft established a reputation for excellence in their creation of finely painted blue and white earthenware (influenced by the introduction of Chinese porcelain into Europe) that became very popular in Portugal.
The popularity of the Dutch imports worried the Portuguese producers of ceramics and led them to hire finer artists to paint the homemade azulejos. By the 18th century the influx of finely trained artists led to the golden age of Portuguese azulejos, referred to as the “Cycle of Masters”. Artists such as António Pereira, Manuel dos Santos, and the father and son of the Oliveira Bernandes family were prolific during this period, becoming the first painters of azulejos to sign their work.
Large orders flowed in from Brazil, where the Portuguese had discovered azulejos highly practical for protecting homes from the damp humidity of the tropics, and following the major earthquake of 1755 huge numbers of decorative tiles were produced for the rebuilding of Lisbon.
The birth of a Portuguese bourgeoisie influenced by European fashions of Rococo and Neo-Classicism led to a new wave of work for painters in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the second half of the 19th century ceramic tiles were being produced on a large scale by factories in Lisbon, Porto and Gaia.
Throughout the 20th century to the present day, every new generation of Portuguese ceramists have experimented with new ways to employ azulejos in a modern fashion. From the monumental futurist collage of tiles that stretch across the walls of the Avenida Calouste Gulbenkian to the often quirky and humorous azulejos found on the Lisbon Underground stations such as Oriente.
Portuguese ceramists are renowned for their ability to produce innovative designs with superior quality using some of the most varied processes and technologies and, in an interesting reversal of cultural influence, today the Portuguese find themselves supplying Middle Eastern Arabic countries such as Dubai, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
This is the first study in English of the political history of Muslim Spain and Portugal, based on Arab sources. It provides comprehensive coverage of events across the whole of the region from 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492.
By Hugh Kennedy
The Wine & Food Lover's Guide to Portugal is a 446-page hardback book for people who like to eat and drink well, stay in welcoming and interesting places, and want to explore Portugal - and not just the beaches.