Beauty in Lisbon’s Azulejo ceramic tiles
Every city has a unique feature that makes it stand out visually. I can’t help but notice the red brick and ornamental Victoria era buildings of London. Marrakesh seems to have a monopoly on the colour red on her buildings and a jaunt to Accra reveals a multi coloured kaleidoscope of all sorts on buildings. Lisbon, I found out, finds it beauty in Azulejo glazed ceramic tiles. From the moment I landed to when I flew out, it became almost impossible to avert my field of vision from these ceramic tiles. They were everywhere, both in the interior and exterior of buildings. Churches, train stations, homes, museums, restaurants and pretty much every notable building had incredibly creative adornments of Azulejo tiles.
Azulejo (Arabic word az-zulayj, meaning polished stone) ceramic tiles I later learned, have a Moorish historical background. The tiles I saw and what you would see in Portugal are not from the Islamic era when almost every Azulejo tile portrayed no human beings, but only geometric patterns, in accordance with Islamic law. Re-Christened Portugal kept the Azulejo adornments of old, but broke out of the limitations of old. Azulejo tiles now portray notable Christian figures, fabled characters and depict major historical events. Blue, yellow, white and green seem to be popular colours with the 17th century Chinese Ming dynasty porcelain inspired combo of blue/white perhaps the most popular. The most beautiful tiles I saw were at the magnificent Pena National Palace in the equally magnificent Azulejo endowed town of Sintra.
One of my favourite experiences in Lisbon was a half day spent in Belem, a part of Lisbon that explains, in part, the popularity of ceramic tiles as artwork and decorations in Portugal. Belem holds the key to Portuguese wealth acquired in a bygone era. This was where voyages of discovery were initiated and the wealth from newly discovered parts of the world were brought in to enrich Portugal. Of course the arts and things that looked aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and helped to separate the status of the wealthy from the masses became de rigueur. Azulejo ceramic tiles became that adornment that injected status into the lives of the aristocrats and wealthy in Portugal. Every palace, castle, mansion and monastery of note had them and in all sizes, designs and significance. That perceived status of tiles still remains. The facades of buildings and restaurants clearly built in recent memory somehow felt regal with this decoration of old. Its owners clearly had an eye on the past as they imitated or perhaps they would claim, drew inspiration from. It is important to note, however, that Azulejo tiles also have a practical aspect to them. Some claim they serve as a formidable barrier against damp, noise, heat and even earthquakes.
The range of artistry inherent in the tiles I saw were simply amazing. It is said that whilst the rest of Europe was busy commissioning their best and most notable artists to create sculptors and paintings, Portugal took to mastering their art on a totally different canvass, the Azulejo ceramic tiles. There is no better place to get to know a bit more and to get a truly awesome sense of these tiles than in Lisbon’s Tile Museum. There is also nothing as refreshing as the way in which this traditional way of decorating buildings in Lisbon lives on today almost side by side with street art, a most ultra-modern form of adornment. As my eyes switched from dilapidated buildings adorned with street art and palatial building adorned with Azulejo tiles the thought that Lisbon truly is a city quite confidently asserting itself in its past glory and accepting and perhaps even encouraging newer forms of artistic expression did not escape me. Redolent of a byegone age of discovery and wealth, the Azulejo ceramic tile remains, however, the ultimate symbol of Lisbon and indeed of Portugal. Few things evoke old-world glamour like it.