The azulejo refers to a typical form of Portuguese or Spanish painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tilework. They have become a typical aspect of Portuguese culture, manifesting without interruption during five centuries the consecutive trends in art.
Wherever one goes in Portugal, azulejos are to be found inside and outside churches, palaces, ordinary houses and even train stations or subway stations. They constitute a major aspect of Portuguese architecture as they are applied on walls, floors and even ceilings. They were not only used as an ornamental art form, but also had a specific functional capacity like temperature control at homes. Many azulejos chronicle major historical and cultural aspects of Portuguese history.
The earliest azulejos in the 15th century were dry-string tiles (cuerda seca) and azulejos alicatados (panels of tile-mosaic) in Moorish tradition, imported from Seville by king Manuel I after a visit to that town in 1503. They were glazed in a single colour and decorated with geometric patterns. They were applied on walls and used for paving floors, such as can be seen in several rooms, and especially the Arab Room of the Sintra National Palace (including the famous cuenca tiles with the armillary sphere, symbol of king Manuel I). The Portuguese adopted the Moorish tradition of horror vacui ('fear of empty spaces') and covered the walls completely with azulejos.
After the Portuguese had captured Ceuta (Spain) in 1415 they became acquainted with the azulejo technique themselves. But until the mid-16th century the Portuguese continued to rely on foreign imports - mostly from Spain, but also on a smaller scale from Antwerp (Flanders) (such as the two panels by Jan Bogaerts in the Paço Ducal, Vila Viçosa, Alentejo) and Italy (such as the Annunciation by Francisco Niculoso in Évora, and Orazio Fontana).
When potters from Spain, Flanders and Italy came to Portugal in the early 16th century and established workshops there, they brought with them the maiolica techniques (which made it possible to paint directly on the tiles). This technique allowed the artists to represent a much larger number of figurative themes in their compositions.
One of the early local masters of the 16th century was Marçal de Matos, to whom Susanna and the Elders (1565), in Quinta da Bacalhoa, Azeitão, is attributed, as well as the Adoration of the Shepperds (in the National Museum of Azulejos in Lisbon). The Miracle of St. Roque (in the Church of S. Roque, Lisbon) is the first dated Portuguese azulejo composition (1584). It is the work of Francisco de Matos, probably the nephew and pupil of Marçal de Matos. Both drew their inspiration on Renaissance and Mannerist paintings and engravings from Italy and Flanders.
In the late 16th century, checkered azulejos (azulejos enxaquetado) were used as decoration for large surfaces, such as in churches and monasteries. Diagonally placed plain white tiles were surrounded by blue square ones and narrow border tiles.
When the diagonal tiles were replaced by a repetitive pattern of horizontal polychrome tiles, one could obtain a new design with different motifs, interlacing Mannerist drawings with representations of roses and camelias (sometimes roses and garlands). An inset votive usually depicts a scene from the life of Christ or a saint. These carpet compositions (azulejo de tapete), as they were called, elaborately framed with friezes and borders, were produced in great numbers during the 17th century. The best examples are to be found in the Igreja do Salvador, Évora, Igreja de S. Quintino, Obral de Monte Agraço, Igreja de S. Vicente, Cuba (Portugal) and the university chapel in Coimbra.
The use of azulejos for the decoration of antependia (front of an altar), imitating precious altar cloths, is typical for Portugal. The panel may be in one piece, or composed of two or three sections. They were used in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Some antependia of the 17th century imitate oriental fabrics (calico, chintz). The golden fringes of the altar cloth were imitated by yellow motifs on the painted border tiles. Excellent examples can be found in the Hospital de Sta. Marta, Lisbon, or in the church of Almoster and the Convent of Buçaco.
During the same period another motif in friezes was introduced: floral vases flanked by birds, dolphins or putti, the so-called albarradas. They were probably inspired by Flemish paintings of flower vases, such as by Jan Brueghel the Elder. These were still free-standing in the 17th century, but they would be used in repetitive modules in the 18th century.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Spanish artist Gabriel del Barco Y Minusca introduced into Portugal the blue-and-white tiles from Delft in the Netherlands. The workshops of Jan van Oort and Willem van der Kloet in Amsterdam created large tile panels with historical scenes for their rich Portuguese clients, such as for the Palace of the Marqueses da Fronteira in Benfica (Lisbon). But when king Pedro II stopped all imports of azulejos between 1687 and 1698, the workshop of Gabriel del Barco took over the production. The last major production from Holland was delivered in 1715. Soon large, home-made blue-and-white figurative tiles, designed by academically trained Portuguese artists, became the dominant fashion, superseding the former taste for repeated patterns and abstract decoration.
The most prominent master-designers in these early years of the 18th century were: António Pereira (artist), Manuel dos Santos, the workshop of Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes and his son Policarpo de Oliveira Bernardes; the Master PMP (only known by his monogram) and his collaborators Teotónio dos Santos and Valentim de Almeida; Bartolomeu Antunes and his pupil Nicolau de Freitas. As their production coincided with the reign of king João V (1706-1750), the style of this period is also called the Joanine style.
In the 1740s the taste of Portuguese society changed from the monumental narrative panels to smaller and more delicately executed panels in Rococo style. These panels depict gallant and pastoral themes as they occur in the works of the French painter Antoine Watteau. Fine examples are the façade and the gardens of the Palace of the Dukes de Mesquitela in Carnide (Lisbon) and the Corredor das Mangas in the Queluz National Palace. The mass-produced tiles acquired a more stereotypic design with predominant polychrome irregular shell motifs.
The reconstruction of Lisbon after the Great Earthquake of 1755 gave rise to a more utilitarian role for decoration with azulejos. This bare and functional style would become known as the Pombaline style, named after the Marquis of Pombal, who was put in charge of rebuilding the country. Small devotional azulejo panels started to appear on buildings as protection against future disasters.
As a reaction, simpler and more delicate Neoclassical designs started to appear with more subdued colours. These themes were introduced in Portugal by the engravings of Robert and James Adams. The Real Fábrica de Louça do Rato, with the master-designer Sebastião Inácio de Almeida and the painter Francisco de Paula e Oliveira, became in this period an important manufacturer of the characteristic so-called Rato-tiles. Another important tile painter in this period was Francisco Jorge da Costa.
While these industrialized methods produced simple, stylized designs, the art of hand-painting tiles wasn't dead, as applied by Manuel Joaquim de Jesús and especially Luis Ferreira. Luis Ferreira was the director of the Lisbon factory Viúva Lamego and covered the whole façade of this factory with allegorical scenes. He produced panels, known as Ferreira das Tabuletas, with flower vases, trees, and allegorical figures, applying the trompe-l'oeil technique. These hand-painted panels are fine examples of the eclectic Romantic culture of the late 19th century.
Around the 1930s, Art Deco-azulejos made their appearance with their principal artist António Costa. The monumental decorations, consisting of 20,000 azulejos, in the vestibule of the São Bento railway station in Porto, created by Jorge Colaço, show in its historical themes the narrative style of the romantic 'picture-postcard'. This one of the most notable creations with azulejos of the 20th century. The façades of the churches of Santo Ildefonso and Congregados equally attest to the artistic mastery of Jorge Colaço. Other artists from this period include Mário Branco and Silvestre Silvestri, who decorated in 1912 the lateral façade of the Carmo Church, and Eduardo Leite for his work on the Almas Chapel (imitating the style of the 18th century), both in Porto.
Leading contemporary artists include Jorge Nicholson Moore Barradas, Jorge Martins, Menez and Paula Rego. Maria Keil designed the large abstract panels in nineteen stations of the Lisbon Underground over a period of 25 years (1957-1982). Through these works she became a driving force in the revival and the updating of the art of the azulejo, which had gone in some decline. Her decorations of the station Intendente is considered a masterpiece of contemporary tile art. In 1988 the following contemporary artists were commissioned to decorate the newer subway stations Júlio Pomar (the Alto dos Moinhos station), Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (the Cidade Universitária station), Rolando Sá Nogueira (Laranjeiras station) and Manuel Cargaleiro (the Colégio Militar station).
The Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon houses the largest collection of Portuguese tiles in the world.
Image shows - Albarrada, flower vase by Valentim de Almeida (between 1729 and 1731); Cathedral of Porto