Azulejos, the beautiful decorative tiles that adorn buildings throughout the country, are now synonymous with Portugal, but they have a history that spans several countries and cultures. Of Moorish origin, the tiles were not only beautiful, they had a functional purpose as well, serving as insulators against the intense heat of the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Azulejos first came to Portugal from Seville, when Dom Manuel I, during his visit to the Spanish city, was struck by the beauty of the tiles. Originally the tiles were of geometric or floral patterns. Their use rapidly spread throughout Portugal, becoming a popular building material for the outside of buildings as well as being used to decorate the interiors structures.
As the popularity of azulejos grew, so did demand. During the second half of the 17th century, Delft potter makers, whose blue and white pottery was already popular throughout Europe, began producing tiles. The popularity of the Dutch tiles was such that they effectively created a monopoly and shut out many Portuguese manufacturers. Dom Pedro II, alarmed at the rate that the Dutch tiles were taking over the market, banned all imports of azulejos between 1687 and 1698, allowing Portuguese artists to fill the void left by the ban.
Over the next few centuries azulejos remained popular in Portugal. The influence of the Dutch tiles continued to be felt, as the blue and white tiles were the most commonly used, but more and more the tiles were used to depict scenes and tell stories. Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs became popular in the early 20th century as artists such as António Costa and Jorge Colaço began to create works of art from azulejos.
From the stunning São Bento Station in Porto, featuring over 20,000 blue and white tiles, to decorative scenes featuring just a couple dozen tiles, azulejos can be found throughout Portugal. This art form with an international history is now forever a part of Portugal.
This beautiful bronze sculpture, by artist Andre Alves, sits along Coimbra’s famed Rua Quebra Costa, a narrow lane leading to the top of the Old City and the University. The statue honors the tricana, a woman of Coimbra. She’s dressed in the traditional clothing, with a shawl and apron, and carries a pitcher, with which she would fetch water from the Mondego River. I love the way the statue sits along the rua, with her sandals kicked off, as if she’s resting before the long climb up the hill.
I love the calçadas Portuguesa, or Portuguese pavement that is so common throughout the country. The tradition goes back to Roman times when the Romans used stone laid in patterns to pave roads, plazas and even floors. The Roman mosaic style of pavement can be seen in Conimbriga and on the ancient road turned walking trail located at Alqueidão da Serra.
The years of Moorish occupation had an influence on the pavement as well. Many of the calçadas Portuguesa feature geometric patterns and designs that show the Arabic influence.
Several earthquakes in the 16th century and then again with the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon, were great drivers for the use of Portuguese pavement. Many of the streets were paved this way after the 1755 earthquake. General Eusébio Furtado used Portuguese pavement to transform the grounds of São Jorge Castle into walking places using the mosaic pavement. He was also responsible for “Mar Largo” at Praça do Rossio, as well as Camões Square, Principe Square and Town Hall Square, all in Lisbon.
The stone is predominantly limestone quarried from the Aire and Candeeiros mountains of Portugal. Black, white, grey and occasionally red stones are commonly used. While geometric patterns are most common there are examples of the stones being used to display floral patterns, symbols and even portraits. Most of what we saw was geometric patterns.
Much like Portugal’s azelejos, the stonework has become a part of the cultural identity. Unfortunately, the future of the art form is at risk. It takes years to learn to cut and lay the stones and there are less expensive forms of pavement available. I hope that the cultural value of the Portuguese pavement outweighs the economic cost and the tradition continues.