You think you know a lot and you find that you don’t know much. There are so many new places to explore that you never even knew existed. Then you find out they’ve been around for centuries just to make you feel more stupid. My newest fascination is with Azulejos. No the word is not a gross typo error but is the name for a type of people that lived in Portugal centuries ago and left their legacy etched in ceramic tile. So, who cares? Well, I care and wonder how our generation will make its mark in history with nothing etched in a tablet or on tile. All our generation’s gifts to the world is etched in a computer. God bless the electric cord and a power station. When that is gone so are we from history.
Azulejos is the Portuguese name for a kind of art that speaks to everyone regardless of language or location. If there is anything that says Portugal, it is the tiles you see on the buildings there. It is the absolute pinnacle of the essence of tiles. I am not talking about those white things you see on the wall in your bathroom. The tiles are essentially the same but way different. If you have the chance to go to a magical place, go to Portugal and see the magic of a storybook town where every wall is a work of washable art. I don’t know why you don’t see more of this stuff in all parts of the world?
What makes the place even more magical is that the tiles are everywhere. Beauty hidden inside palaces but then also placed as part of the brickwork on ordinary buildings in the streets making them look quite extraordinary. Even the subways are adorned with lots of tiles. Like a horror movie, if you hated ceramic tiles, there seems to be no way to get away from them in this part of the world. In fact the area is nicknamed the land of gold over blue. If you are a photographer or just a person who likes to take pictures, this is the place for you. Everything seems to be interesting here.
The Portuguese like to tell you that tiles are practical. Much more practical than paint. Tiles can last for centuries and require little or no maintenance. Spend just one day in Portugal and you know it’s not about practical, these things are works of art. Many of the buildings there go back to the 1850's with the art work still looking brand new on the outside of the buildings. It is not unusual that many buildings have been owned with original businesses that go back for five generations. Azulejos is a word that is thought to have come from Arabic which makes sense since the Muslims originally from Africa occupied Portugal and Spain for more than 300 years and left their culture and art behind.
There is an ancient national palace north of Lisbon in a town called Sintra that served as the summer residence to Portugal’s kings for nearly 800 years. This place puts the caveman’s drawings to shame. Each room is a pictorial history etched in tile. There are relief motif tiles that at first they had purchased from Spain but by the 17Th century they were making their own. By the 18Th century they had learned from the Dutch to get that blue delft look. Soon Portuguese tiles went from geometric patterns to works of fine art. There were huge blue and white panels telling stories of battles and beautiful landscapes that look more like tapestries or paintings.
In Portugal you can still purchase tiles made the old fashioned way by hand painted by artists who actually draw art for a living as a 9 to 5 job. In 1755 a huge tragedy happened that changed everything. An earthquake followed by a tsunami destroyed Lisbon. One of the only surviving records of the city before the tragedy is a blue and white tiled panel 75 feet long which is now the priceless possession of Lisbon’s National Tile Museum. The new Lisbon was rebuilt very quickly and the people did not forget their tradition of artistic tiles inside and out. By the 1800s the elaborate tiles became fashionable again.
Now tiles are mass produced and the artwork is quite modern. Murals and billboards are still done in tile. Even signs for businesses are creatively drawn in tile. You would think this is normal if you do not come from anywhere else in the world where none of this is done. I don’t think there is another country that even has a National Tile Museum. It just shows the pride that these people have in their craft. Take the subway there to see the thematic walls of even Marvel comic superheroes like superman doing their daring stunts. Why do we have plain white tiles everywhere? It would have made working in the New York City subways a lot more interesting for me when I worked as a transit cop for years.
Ask any one you know who has painted something in a ceramic shop that the mystery of your creation is not revealed until after you fire it in the kiln. After it is baked, the colors come to life and if you are really bad at it your fingerprints will be revealed and preserved for a really long time. I love a place where fantasy can become a reality. Where fun is taken seriously. As usual we have much to be learned from our past.