Tile Mosaics of Portuguese History

By Kaslow, Amy | The Christian Science Monitor, November 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

Tile Mosaics of Portuguese History


Kaslow, Amy, The Christian Science Monitor


THE Portuguese azulejo: The history of these glazed ceramic tiles forms as rich a mosaic as their designs.

For the past five centuries, tiles have added color and dimension to Portuguese architecture: in grand old residences, on new blocks of modern apartment buildings, on firehouses, composing murals in churches, bordering highways, covering old manor houses, decorating commercial establishments, tucked away in castles, and paving streets.

Tiles are everywhere. They invariably appear in formation, whether they compose ornate pictorial scenes of maidens and fruits or brilliantly colored geometric designs. The azulejo developed and traveled, given the unique geographics of the Portuguese. Portugal looks west over the Atlantic to the Americas. It reaches south to the Mediterranean and Africa; east to Iberia; and north to all of Europe. The possibilities for the developing azulejo artistry, of Arab origination, have known no bounds.

Tiles spread from the European continent to islands in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Azulejos have been prominent in such faraway lands as Brazil, an important former Portuguese territory. Foreign influences have made their way to Portugal: The Moors, the Italians, the Spaniards, and the Dutch all played roles in the various incarnations of the azulejos.

The evolution of azulejos was in harmony with the development of Portuguese painting and sculpture. Flemish influences from the 15th century, for example, gave the tiles their deep coloring and detailed portraiture. By the 17th century, popular relief patterns that adorned buildings and gardens gave way to entire panels depicting religious and secular scenes. Eighteenth-century tiles formed compositions, such as broad landscapes, stories from the Bible, and hunting scenes.

Well after the Industrial Revolution reached the azulejo with production techniques such as the copper mint, which facilitated repetition of a design, many artisans preferred and continued to paint tiles by hand. In fact, by the early 20th century, many tiled pictorials showed simple rural life. These offered strong statements about preserving the bucolic world in the midst of industrialization.

Art Nouveau also emerged during this period, in bold contrast to the pictorials nostalgic for the simple life. Ornamental azulejos, rich in hue and complex in design, were popular. Raised designs added dimension and texture to fauna and flora.

Art Deco artisans reacted with often severe, simple geometric and figurative designs. Later artists employed tiles in Cubist designs, perhaps one of the square tiles most natural decorative uses. …

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