The azulejo (decorative tile) is without doubt the art form synonymous with Portugal and it is fitting that it should have a museum dedicated to it, but the great thing about azulejo art is that it can been seen all over Portugal: on the facades of buildings, on walls of churches and palaces, and even in Lisbon metro stations. The word azulejo originates from the Arabic az-zuleij which refers to the smooth polished stones they used to create mosaic-patterned tiles and the azulejo art form in southern Europe originated with the Moors, who brought it to Spain in the eighth century. The Azulejo Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) in the Xabregas district of Lisbon charts the history of tile-making in Portugal from the early Hispano-Moresque tiles to the present day and shows the changes in techniques and styles throughout the centuries, beginning in the early-sixteenth century when tiles made in Valencia and Seville were imported to Portugal. These were designed in an Islamic style comprising colourful geometric patterns and so that the colours didn’t run into each other during firing two techniques were developed: the corda seca (dry cord) method, in which a groove was carved into the damp clay; and the aresta (ridge) method, in which ridges were produced in the damp clay.
In the mid-sixteenth century, Italian artists came to live in Lisbon and brought with them a method of painting directly onto the clay using a tin oxide coating to stop the colours running and this allowed the tile to have a smooth surface rather than the grooves and ridges of the Hispano-Moresque tiles. This method, known as majolica, was adopted in Portugal and hence the Portuguese azulejo was born. Early Portuguese azulejo panels depicted religious imagery and one of the most beautiful examples is the retable of Nossa Senhora da Vida (‘Our Lady of Life’, attributed to Marçal de Matos, c.1580), which includes images of the adoration of the shepherds and St John.
The seventeenth century saw a great variety of styles developing in the azulejo art form. Azulejos de Padrão or Tapetes (rugs) were so named as they resembled Moorish rugs hanging on a wall. They usually comprised repeated patterns in blue, yellow and white and often had an inset panel depicting a religious scene. In this century the wealthy were decorating their houses with secular azulejo panels, often depicting battles from Portuguese history, episodes from the Discoveries, scenes from mythology, and hunting scenes. Techniques used to create Dutch delftware were adopted by the makers of azulejos and allowed artists to include more detail in their pictures. It was also popular to use exotic patterns on altar frontals, inspired by those on printed textiles imported from India, rather than traditional religious imagery.
A major change in the style of the azulejo occurred in the late-seventeenth century, influenced by blue and white porcelain imported from China, which had become fashionable in Portugal. Artists began painting pictures solely in blue paint on the white background of the tile and it is still the style most associated with the azulejo and is one reason some people erroneously assume the word azulejo comes from azul (the Portuguese word for ‘blue’). By the eighteenth-century Portugal had become the largest producer of tiles and in this decade panels depicting scenes of daily life, such as people on a terrace or a lady at her dressing table, and others decorated with colourful vases of flowers, known as Albarradas, became popular. The influence of the Baroque and Rococo movements resulted in azulejo panels gaining ornate flourishes, such as colourful borders of cherubs, shells and plants. After the earthquake of 1755 it also became common to cover the exterior of buildings with azulejos, to protect it as well as decorate it. To meet the demand an earthenware factory opened in the Rato district of Lisbon which produced tiles with simple repetitive designs for the walls of kitchens and hallways.
The mass-production of azulejos in the mid-nineteenth century meant that ordinary people could afford them and they were no longer just for the elite. However, one of the highlights of this period is a series of self-indulgent azulejo panels telling the rags-to-riches story of António Joaquim Carneiro, a wealthy Lisbon hatmaker. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fashions continued to evolve, from art noveau works by the notable late-nineteenth-century artist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, through the early-twentieth-century Art Deco movement to later-twentieth- and twenty-first-century works such as ‘Lisbonne aux Mille Couleurs’ (1937) by Paolo Ferreira, ‘Os Reis Magos’ (‘The Three Kings’, 1945) and ‘A Pintura e a Escultura’ (‘Painting and Sculpture’, 1954) by Jorge Barradas, ‘Camões’ (1988) by Júlio Pomar (from a panel in the Alto dos Moinhos metro station), and ‘Albarrada’ 2001 by Bela Silva (an homage to the eighteenth-century fashion for panels depicting vases of flowers).
The Azulejo Museum is housed in the former Madre de Deus convent which was founded in 1509 by Queen Leonor (wife of João II and sister of Manuel I who succeeded João II). It was built in the Manueline style, but much of it was damaged during the 1755 earthquake and it was rebuilt in the eighteenth century. However, some Manueline elements can still be seen on the façade and in the cloister with the Saint Auta fountain and geometrical tiles (although these tiles date from the nineteenth century). The church and the Chapel of Saint Anthony are wonderfully Baroque, with opulent gold decoration, panels of azulejos depicting biblical scenes and scenes from the life of Saint Anthony, ornate altars and paintings on the walls and ceilings. The café is also worth visiting for its eighteenth-century azulejo panels depicting fish and animals hanging up waiting to be prepared for cooking.
The pièce de résistance, on the top floor of the museum, housed in a room of its own, is a 23-metre-long panorama of Lisbon dating from around 1700 (attributed to the painter Gabriel del Barco). It gives a detailed view of how the city, from Xabregas to Algés, looked before the devastating earthquake of 1755. It is fun to try and find at all the recognisable buildings that survived, such as Saint George’s Castle, Lisbon Cathedral, the Madre de Deus Convent, the Jerónimos Monastery and the Belém Tower, but it is also fascinating to see the buildings that didn’t survive the earthquake, such as the Dukes of Braganza Palace and the Ribeira Palace (the former royal palace in what is now Praça do Comércio). It acts as an important historical document of what daily life was like in Lisbon in the early 1700s, with scenes of activity in the Ribeira market and on the river.
In the past the process of creating an azulejo panel was labour-intensive. A clay square was fired and then covered with a glaze onto which a picture was drawn and then painted with a special paint. Larger panels were painted as a whole and then each tile was numbered before the panel was taken apart and reassembled after firing. Nowadays the majority of azulejos are made in factories where each tile is printed by a machine. However, some are still hand painted and are keeping this most Portuguese of art forms very much alive, as the museum makes testament to.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Rua da Madre de Deus, Lisbon
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10am-6pm (closed Mondays, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 13 June, 25 December, 1 January)
Bus: 718, 742, 794 and the open-top buses
On foot: it is a 20-minute walk from Santa Apolónia station. Ensure you walk in a north-easterly direction along Rua Caminhos de Ferro (with the railway lines on your right) – we made the mistake of walking to the right of Santa Apolónia station and found ourselves in an unsavoury area underneath the flyover and not sure if we would be able to get across the railway lines (thankfully we were able!).