Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
Tiles Tell The Tale…
Especially in Lisbon
How can a lump of hardened earth, painted over, touch my heart so? I am truly not sure. Here I am in Tile Land, better known as Portugal. Tiles are pouring out on the walls of buildings, on restaurant floors, on the street, on passageway ceilings, at train stations and platforms, in the subway. Lisbon literally dazzles at night with chips of white porcelain embedded in the streets of Liberdade, its main thoroughfare. Tiles create a different world, another personality for this country of ten and half million. In its capital, Lisbon, they reach out to me.
Tile itself is made of the earth; it can be cool in the summer and keep one warm in the winter. Used to both adorn and insulate, they became a means of artistic expression for the Portuguese people.
Long before others, the Portuguese were out exploring the world. Now this New Yorker is out exploring Lisbon and a bit beyond. Near Avenida Liberdade new tiles cover the walls and ceiling of a rounded passageway. A local was performing a handstand when I happened upon it. Why tile? Why here?
My guide in the charming old Alfama district explained that tiles go back to the 15th century when the Portuguese got the idea from the Spanish. First they were used on the outside, and then they came inside to homes and religious buildings.
The 16th-Century Monastery of Sao Vincente de Fora is awash in blue and white tiled walls. It is thrilling. Old marble floors and a covered courtyard filled me with awe…truly. The blue and white is set against dark wood giant doors. In its open-air courtyard large tiles tell picture stories; each panel advances the story. Rich elaborate borders frame the stories the tile tell.
They are from a time when many people could not read. All the tile work is blue and white…a deep rich blue. Dare I call it a French blue? In this Cloister, there are 81 panels with 14,521 tiles put in place in 1737 during the reign of João V.
Up forty steps of steep stairs are a remarkable set of panels that recount Aesop’s Fables. Translated from the ancient Greek, La Fontaine’s famed stories are all in that same rich blue with borders. Known as Fabulas de la Fontaine, 38 tile panels are on display, their story explanations in print alongside. Portuguese writers were inspired by his famous 240 fables. The characters in the animal world portray characteristics of people… the sly fox, the stubborn donkey, and many more.
But what about today? For a complete departure, walk along the 11,625 feet of a contemporary tile mural. Perhaps the largest expanse of azulejos it stretches 11,625 square feet alongside a busy flea market and the Botto Machado garden. Full of wit and whimsy its tiles were fabricated right in Lisbon.
Artist and impresario Andre Saraiva created the mural with its 55,000 hand-painted tiles. It includes Lisbon sites like St. George Castle and the Discoveries Monument as well as a boat named for Jackie, the artist’s girlfriend.
Of course, there is the Tile Museum. In a former convent, the whole history of tiles, both utilitarian and aesthetic, are spread over a few floors. The exquisite building itself might have been enough; however it is chock full of explanations and examples.
As wall coverings, azulejos replaced tapestries and were cooler. What I saw, really all began in 1496 at the National Palace in the city of Sintra to show King Manuel’s power. King Manuel ordered big tile “murals” in the style of the Dutch to be created. They were designed to tell stories like paintings, so each has an elaborate blue and white frame.
But how does a tile get made? I visited the Sant’anna factory to find out from owner/manager Francisco Tomas, a member of the family that has owned the company since 1741. It is the oldest working tile factory in Europe.
After the earthquake of 1755, tile started to be used instead of stone. Today Sant’anna still uses natural terra cotta in a very old world way. Every tile is unique, made just as was done in the 1500’s. Custom work is their specialty. The Clintons ordered pictures of their pets; Madeline Albright has frequented the store.
Each tile is fired two times to get the desired resistance, a crucial part of the process. It is exacting, like baking a cake. The second time creates the colors. The oven itself makes the change. It takes two to three days to get the temperature right. It goes up and down ever so slowly, as tiles get fired at 1,000 degrees. The ovens are the only machines in the factory; everything else is done by hand.
The next step: “Painting is where the magic happens,” said Mr. Tomas. It is a lost art in much of Europe and the world. The Queen of the Netherlands brought her people to the factory to learn how to replicate such tiles in the Netherlands. Mr. Thomas got emotional as he was watched things done just as his grandfather had seen them executed. It is a truly Portuguese product. All the clay used here is from Portugal, but it goes all over the world. Sant’anna exports 85%, especially to the U.S.
But back to the history of tiles and why Portugal. After the earthquake of 1755, the city needed to be rebuilt. The prime minister had view to the future and wanted earthquake proof techniques. They wanted materials similar to those for boats applied to buildings to have waterproof façades. There were just two options: stone and tile. Tile was cheaper. A lot of factories made them and ultimately tile became used inside, too. It led to artistically distinguished buildings in the 18th and 19thcentury. The Portuguese became experts. After the 18th century tile became available to everyone. In the 20th century, with globalization and tourism, azulejo tiles became a cultural characteristic of Portugal -- a kind of trademark.
Mr.Tomas supervised a tile project for Angola when the government wanted to rebuild schools after the war. Sant’anna was the only supplier still available. “It’s emotional. I speak from the heart, it is heart-touching. It is full of history.” “Everywhere you go there is a story behind the tiles.”
Enthralled, I took myself off to Lisbon’s National Tile Museum. It is housed in a former convent, with a cloister and rosebush garden, worth a visit in of itself. At the museum the whole history of tiles, both utilitarian and aesthetic -- an art form -- spreads over a few floors. The museum is “everything you wanted to know about azulejos” all in one place. The tiles represent the past five centuries of Portugal’s special talent and taste.
Azulejo is from Arabic azzelio azuleycha, meaning small polished stone. 1558 saw a new technique: faience. The church commissioned many tiles to cover altar fronts with religious symbolism and emblematic scenes. The Tile Museum includes the convent’s church, ornate with gilt and paintings. One room with giant blue and white tiles tells religious tales.
A video narrator proclaims, “After all it is just baked earth with a bit of enamel.” Described as a poor man’s art used by the wealthy, room after room bursts with them. It is a tile explosion.
The museum encompasses both past and present. Upstairs are superb contemporary artistic tile pieces by fine artists from 1990 through the 2000’s. Climb to the top floor for a blue and white panoramic view of Lisbon. Remarkably, it was created before the earthquake of 1755 and depicts early 18th C Lisbon. Don’t miss it!
Something so ubiquitous in Portugal could mean too much of it, too frequently seen. Yet the tiles of Portugal reach out to me. I went in search of them, was staggered by them, and remain so. Perhaps you will feel the same.
IF YOU GO:
For classical tiles: Showroom: Fabrica Sant’anna, Rua do Alecrim 95, 21-342-26-37
Factory: Calcada da Boa Hora 96 213 638 292; www.santanna.com.pt
For contemporary tiles:
Fabrica Viuva Lamego, Largeo do Intendente 25, www.viuvalamego.com
National Tile Museum, Rua da Madre de Deus, 4 www.museudoazulejo.pt
Sao Vincente de Fora Church and Monastery Largo Sao Vincente
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