The Worldwide History of Spanish and Portuguese Fascinating Tiles or Azulejos

Azulejos belong to the artistic world of Spanish and later Portuguese traditional tiles. Their production starts in the 14th century with the arrival of Moorish invaders. The word azulejo comes from Arabic language, (al zulaycha), which means little polished stone.

At first, it signified only North African mosaics. Though their role is artistic, azulejos were used everywhere. This covers walls, fountains, churches, pavements, baths or fireplaces. The list seems just unlimited.

Originally they had neutral tones and simple geometric shapes. Blue and white came into the focus of colours at the beginning. Though blue prevails in azulejos, the name doesn’t signify azul or blue colour in Portuguese.

Architectural wonder amazes at the view of azulejos but their purpose is truly historical. Azulejos shaped Portugal’s cultural and historical heritage just like fado.

The Early History of Azulejos

Egypt and Mesopotamia are the source of the first glazed tiles. During the 27th century BCE, the pharaon Djoser built in Saqqarah a pyramid whose funerary chamber was decorated in tiles. These tiles were green tiles with yellow lines.

Actually, imitating the Byzantine and Roman mosaics was a main idea behind the European absorption of tiles. Ancient Egyptians used tiles in tombs and religious buildings but also in the pyramids.

The Greeks and Romans adopted this ancient art, including fine mosaics. The Chinese made it even more subtle around 206 BC, incorporating porcelain.

Terracota tiles initiated this fabulous artistic process. Firstly, for the roof tiles the Egyptians developed large stone tiles. Limestone was pretty cherished by ancient Egyptians.

Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon, now in Iraque
Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon, now in Iraque- Credit: Artsandculture.google.com

Ishtar Gate in Babylon is a stunning example of how glaze made perfection in the further development of tiles.

Arabic Roots

Horror Vacui or fear of empty spaces is a Moorish tradition that explains this fascinating art. The Moors shaped the Arab Andalusian civilization in Europe before coming to North Africa. Moorish culture defined the marvellous style of Portuguese architecture.

The Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, officially known as Qubbat al-Sakhra, might be the earliest example of Islamic tile decoration. It’s located on the temple Mount in Jerusalem and established by the Muslim caliph Abd el-Malik. The mosque experienced exquisite renovation thanks to Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566 CE).

Fascinating tiles at the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem
Fascinating tiles at the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem- Credit: Planetware.com

The Ottoman Empire gave birth to Iznik, which became a centre of tile and ceramic production. Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Islanbul or Blue Mosque covers the enticing interior rich with blue and white tiles.

The semi-precious stone lapis lazuli gives honour to the royal blue colours everywhere. It glorifies knowledge, intuition and magical powers.

Arrival of Azulejos in Portugal

The popularity of azulejos grew in Portugal in the 16th century when Portuguese King Manuel I visited Seville. Amazed by their beauty, he decided to bring them in Portugal. Seville developed the tile production in the 13th century.

Alicatados depicted the tile mosaics as the earliest azulejos type in the 13th century. These glazed tiles were pretty simple and nowadays can be seen in the Alhambra in Granada. Alicatado is an expensive process involving a lot of manual work for cutting tiles.

The room Coat of arms in the Sintra National Palace
The room Coat of arms in the Sintra National Palace- Credit: Madaboutsintra.com

Sintra National Palace became the first fabulous spectar of a new decorative style. Cuenca tiles describe the King’s famous armillary sphere. Simple geometrical patterns define the first Portuguese tiles that can be seen in Sintra National Palace.

Representing stories about Portuguese history, religion and culture is the main purpose of this fascinating artwork.

First Pottery Workshops

First pottery workshops started to appear in Lisbon in the second half of the 16th century. Potters from Italy established the Maiolica technique with the new Renaissance waves.

Nobility and clergy scattered the tile production due to their increasing demand. The religious themes prevailed in the mosaics of mostly blue and white colours.

Italian Majolica and Its Influence

Seville became a hive of pottery workshops. Francesco Niculoso was the first Italian potter that moved to Spain, precisely to Seville in 1458. Alcazar in Seville gives evidence of his magnificent artwork.

Fascinating Plaza de Espagna in Sevilla
Fascinating Plaza de Espagna in Sevilla- Credit: Artesaniasevilla.com

Majolica involved the larger designs and more colourful decoration. The Renaissance brought new techniques, including mythological scenes, Bible topics or hunting scenes.

The city of Faenza in central Italy established its tile production. The Italian majolica style brought the shining palette of new colours. It covered light yellow, dark yellow, brown, purple. Chiaroscuro made a drastic reversal, bringing the contrast of colours and a sense of volume.

Azulejo tiles have got a fresh, artistic touch. Francesco Niculoso brought Spain and Portugal to the new wave of cultural heritage.

Guido di Savino from Venice initiated tile production in Antwerpen around 1500. Museum Rainha D. Leonor in Portuguese Beja covers the amazing collection of 16th century azulejos.

Styles That Influenced Azulejo’s Artwork

The grotesque represented the major inspiration in the 16th century for the stunning artwork of azulejos. Raphael brought the secular motives of ancient Rome. The exotic themes from India and China enlightened the grotesque style.

Chinese porcelain brought a new wave of inspiration to the Dutch painters  and ceramics from Delft at the end of the 17th century. It transfers in Portugal following the entire country in the rhythm of the white and blue tiles.

The ceramics from Delft, typical blue and white porcelain
The ceramics from Delft, typical blue and white porcelain- Credit: Netherlandsinsiders.com

The Baroque style popped in together with the Rococco style during the 18th century. Rococco’s style signifies the complex ornaments inspired by Watteau and his elegant scenes.

The Neoclassical style depicts the 19th century and the simple motives of the antique world. Art Noveau azulejos penetrate at the start of the 20th century. The feminine movements embraced new artworks.

The Golden Age of Azulejos

The early 18th century brings the Golden Age of Azulejo or the Cycle of the Masters. Portuguese cultural tradition touched its influence in the colony of Brazil.

Rococco and Baroque elements prevailed, creating the enticing ambience of palaces, churches and even homes.

Museu National do Azulejo in Lisbon
Museu National do Azulejo in Lisbon- Credit: Lisbonportugaltourism.com

Due to the strong earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, Azulejos revealed a new purpose. Their protection of future disasters was very practical.

The artists that marked the early 18th century were: António Pereira, Manuel dos Santos, Master PMP, Bartolomeu Antunes and his pupils.

The smaller panels substituted the monumental ones at the throne of pastoral themes. The French painter Antoine Watteau served as the source of inspiration. The Palace of the Dukes de Mesquitela in Lisbon and Queluz National Palace are the most delicate examples.

Azulejos in Mexico

Talavera pottery was developed in Mexico, which is a style of Mexican maiolica. This fascinating tradition pulls roots from the Spanish city Talavera de la Reina, already in the 1st century. Thin glazed pottery is the basis of this style. Talavera ceramics mostly are plates, bowls, jars and similar items.

It characterises the state of Puebla and includes high quality natural clay. Here the blue colour prevails with the exquisite touch of yellow, black, green or orange.

Casa de los Azulejos in Mexico
Casa de los Azulejos in Mexico- Credit: Fahrenheitmagazine.com

Casa de los Azulejos in Mexico City is an 18th century Baroque palace rich in tile decor. Blue and white tiles cover its elegant facades on three sides. Built by the Count of the Valle de Orizaba family, today it functions as a flagship restaurant.

São Luís City in Brazil- The City of Azulejos

São Luís City is the capital of the Brazilian state Maranhão. It was founded by France in 1612 but Portugal shaped its history. The historic centre of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

The historic centre of São Luís in Brazil
The historic centre of São Luís in Brazil- Credit: Temporadalivre.com

São Luís covers the largest collection of azulejos in Latin America on the lovely island that lies in the Northeast of Brazil. São Luís gives a feast for the eyes and an artistic pleasure as a city-museum. The houses are mostly colonial buildings covered in azulejos from the 17th-19th century.

More than 300 models delight and keep the bright sunlight and low temperatures in the interior.

Contemporary Time of Azulejos

Modern times take panorama of azulejos to railway stations, particularly in the 1930s. Sao Bento Station in Porto sets an alluring example. More than 20 000 tiles depict King D. Joao and Queen Philippa while entering the city of Porto.

The Lisbon Metro system is filled with azulejo tiles and one of the most famous metro station is Bolhao Market  Station in Porto.

The fascinating San Bento train station in Porto
The fascinating San Bento train station in Porto- Credit: Cookingportugal.com

Portuguese streets hold the treasure of azulejos at the most surprising spots. Add Fuel is an artist that completed many large scale murals with the modern twist. BerriBlue creates modern street art in Porto using the handpainted techniques.

Museo National do Azulejo in Lisbon

Lisbon’s National Tile Museum is a hidden gem in the city, the only museum in Portugal of such a kind. It’s the best place to learn about Portugal’s cultural identity and the techniques that have evolved.

The museum is located a bit away from central Lisbon, about 1,5 km east from the Santa Apolónia railway station. It can easily be reached by bus 759 from the metro stop near Baixa-Chiado.

Once the edifice was a church of Madre de Deus that dates back to 1509. The Museum was officially founded in 1965 by João Miguel do Santos Simões.

The fascinating chapel at the Museo National de Azulejo in Lisbon
The fascinating chapel at the Museo National de Azulejo in Lisbon- Credit: Saltaconmigo.com

The chronological order leads the collection in the stunning interior of Madre de Deus. Most of the images are religious paintings at the beginning. The modern exhibition is full of colour. The chapel is breathtaking, because of the golden decoration. You can take a workshop inside the museum and start your own azulejo collection.

Palacio Fronteira in Lisbon

Fronteira Palace is another hidden gem of Lisbon with stunning tile artwork. Built in 1671, it’s now a private residence of the Marquesses of Fronteira. It’s located near the Monsanto Forest Park in the quiet suburb of Lisbon.

The stunning gardens at the Fronteira Palace in Lisbon
The stunning gardens at the Fronteira Palace in Lisbon- Credit: Weheartlisbon.com

Its Baroque gardens are full of statues with fascinating glazed tiles. These images tell the stories of battles or monkeys that play trumpets. The library and garden are open to public visits.

Igreja de Santa Maria de Marvila in Santarém, Portugal

Polychrome tiles with a complex framework replaced the plain white tiles. The most fascinating example is the Portuguese church, Igreja de Santa Maria de Marvila. The 17th century involves the typical design of Portugal with the allure of azulejos.

Azulejos at the church Igreja de Santa Maria de Marvila in Santarem
Azulejos at the church Igreja de Santa Maria de Marvila in Santarem- Credit: Visitar.portugal.pt

This beautiful church touches an important sphere of the Middle Age. The Templars founded a church with the permission of a King in 1149. After renovation in the 16th century, Igreja in Santarem became a fascinating artwork.

The whole interior is just immensely enchanting as azulejo tiles cover the entire walls. The doorway became a triumphal arch of impressive beauty and details.

Alhambra Palace

The Alhambra was built on a hill overlooking Granada around 889. The Alhambra is one of the most exquisite architectural pieces in Spain, originally built as a fortress.

Amazing tilework at Alhambra palace in Granada
Amazing tilework at Alhambra palace in Granada- Credit: Dosde.com

This fantastic Moorish complex was even built on the Roman ruins. The Alhambra became a palace in 1333 thanks to Yusuf I, the sultan of Granada. Finally, it came into the hands of monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

Many colourful mosaics intertwine with the stunning carvings that offer pure amazement.

Portuguese Style

The Pombalino style takes the throne of the cultural appearance of Lisbon thanks to the first Marquiz of Pombal- Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, (1699-1782 CE). He initiated the reconstruction of Lisbon, giving bloom to this low-cost building style.

Azulejos pombalinos changed the interior and the exterior to the delightful ambience just everywhere.

They started to fill public and religious monuments, palaces, stairway walls, houses, restaurants, and gardens. The Real Fábrica de Louça opened in the Rato district of Lisbon.

The typical building of pombalino style in Lisbon
The typical building of pombalino style in Lisbon- Credit: Lisbonlux.com

The exotic touch enlightened azulejo production, adding elephants, monkeys and indigenous people to the design. Indian textile with the Hindu symbols inspires the new type of azulejos called aves and ramagens („birds and brenches“). It appeared between 1650 and 1680.

The Baroque and Rococo inspired the unique azulejo style in Portugal- figuras de convite or invitation figures. These life-sized figures were standing on the walls at the entrances of the palaces.

Conclusion- The History of Azulejos

Ever since azulejos came to Portugal in the 15th century, their captivating charm has defined the Portuguese spirit. This Moorish artwork scattered along former Spanish and Portuguese colonies. This includes North And South America, Goa in India, Lusophore in Africa, Macau in China and the Philippines.

The enchanting shine of azulejos belongs to the blend of cultures, a hidden mystery that speaks silently. The stories they tell evolved over centuries and touched almost every single corner of Portugal. Parks and restaurants, benches and metro stations- they all took the attires of the palaces.

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