Azulejos—A ‘Tiletale’ of Ancient History
By “Awake!” correspondent in Portugal
HAVE you ever heard of azulejos? This is a common term in Portugal. Azulejos are tiles, but probably different from most varieties you have seen.
Azulejos are earthenware tiles beautifully decorated by an artist and covered with a thin glasslike layer for protection. Thereafter they are “fired” in a special oven, or “kiln”—a process that works for great durability. Azulejos feature both eye-catching geometric designs and pictures of things, including life on land and at sea. Some depict tales from ancient mythology.
In many parts of Portugal one cannot walk far without encountering azulejos. Often they appear as signs identifying streets. Rua Alegre, meaning “happy,” “cheerful,” or “lively street,” is an example here in Lisbon. A rectangular plate of six tiles set in a wall bears the street name. The two words appear centered one above the other in elegant blue lettering on a white background. Forming a border around the outer edges of the rectangle is a cheerful design in gold color interlaced with green leaves. Two pink flowers adorn the upper corners.
Azulejos also appear as doorplates and numbers for houses. Dwellings, old and new, have decorative tile coatings. In villages near Lisbon it is common to see on an outer wall of whitewashed houses an image of the householder’s favorite “saint”—in azulejos. Inside the homes, too, azulejos will meet your eye. You may see them as the facing for a fireplace, on stands for flowerpots, or as frames for mirrors and pictures.
Portugal’s azulejos have an ancient history. The name itself may be significant. While some trace its origin to azul, meaning “blue,” others suggest that the Portuguese word developed from an Arabic verb, zallaga, meaning “to be smooth, slippery.” In the fourteenth century Portugal imported artistic and colorful tiles from Andalusia in Spain, where there was a strong Moorish or Arabic influence in both art and language. One can still see tiles from that period both inside and outside religious buildings in the cities of Córdoba and Seville. Decorated in green, white, blue, black and cream colors, they display complex designs of polygons and star shapes, typical of the Spanish-Moorish style.
But Spain is not the only source of azulejos. Much of this decorative tilework displays Oriental designs, reminiscent of China. Centuries ago Portuguese explorers carried on trade in the Canton delta. Impressed with the beauty of delicate Chinese porcelainware, the explorers brought much of it back to Lisbon. The Chinese were fond of using blue on white for decorating porcelain, a color scheme you will frequently see on azulejos here in Portugal. During the seventeenth century the Dutch made a fine imitation of the Chinese product. Portugal was quick to import from the Dutch too. So our azulejos, while a monument to Portuguese artistry, have an ancient history that incorporates artistic features from other lands.