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Lisbon’s azulejos

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Lisbon has some of Portugal’s best azulejos – brightly coloured, decorative ceramic tiles – and you can see a variety of styles decorating houses, shops, monuments and even metro stations. The craft of decorative tile-making was brought over by the Moors in the eighth century. Originally, the tiles were painted using thin ridges of clay to prevent the lead-based colours from running into each other, and the early Portuguese tiles were produced using the same techniques: the early sixteenth-century geometric tiles in the Palácio Nacional in Sintra are a fine example. Portuguese azulejos developed their own style around the mid-sixteenth century when a new Italian method – introduced to Iberia by Francisco Niculoso – enabled images to be painted directly onto the clay thanks to a tin oxide coating which prevented running.

At first, religious imagery was the favoured form – such as those in the Bairro Alto’s Igreja de São Roque – but during the seventeenth century decadent and colourful images became popular. The wealthy Portuguese began to commission large azulejo panels displaying battles, hunting scenes and fantastic images influenced by Vasco da Gama’s voyages to the East, while huge panels were also commissioned for churches – these often covered an entire wall and became known as tapetes (carpets) because of their resemblance to rugs. By the late seventeenth century, blue and white tiles influenced by Dutch tile-makers were popular with Portugal’s aristocracy, and their favoured images were flowers and fruit. The early eighteenth century saw highly-trained artists producing elaborately decorated, multicoloured ceramic mosaics, often with Rococo themes.

After the Great Earthquake, more prosaic tiled facades, often with Neoclassical designs, were considered good insulation devices, as well as protecting buildings from rain and fire. By the mid-nineteenth century, azulejos were being mass-produced to decorate shops and factories, while the end of the century saw the reappearance of figurative designs, typified by the work in the Cervejaria da Trindade, a vaulted beer-hall in the Bairro Alto. By the 1900s, Portugal had become the world’s leading producer of decorative tiles, with Art Deco designs taking hold in the 1920s. Lisbon’s metro stations boast some of the best of the more modern tiles, with work by artists such as Eduardo Nehry, whose tiles light up Campo Grande, and António da Coata, whose Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired white rabbit can be seen at Cais do Sodré station.

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