Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Portugal's magnificent history of tiles

Leonardo mainly used canvas, Michalangelo often marble, but for the past five centuries, the main foundation of artistic material in Portugal has been ceramic tiles.
Known in Portugal as ‘Azulejos’, derived from the Arabic word ‘Azzelij’, or 'Al zuleicha'  meaning small polished stone, this custom of painting bright artworks onto ceramic tiles originated in Egypt, then moved to Persia where it was adopted throughout the Moorish world, before moving up to Southern Spain and the Iberian peninsula.
The Portuguese embraced this art form and it is used extensively on both exterior facades and interior spaces in public & private buildings across the country. The brightly, and often ornate tiles decorate everything from walls of churches to metro stations and public toilets with subject matter as varied as Religious figures, geometric patterns and historical events. It exudes a richness of cultural iconography that has become a symbol of the country.
I was very interested to learn more about the manufacture of these tiles and the process of dating them, so we organised a private guided visit to one of Lisbon's original tile manufacturers. Fabrica Sant'Ana has a showroom in central Bairro Alto and their factory is a little further away in the suburbs. Fabrica Sant'Ana began manufacturing tiles in 1741 and the process is exactly the same today with the exception that the ovens are now electrically powered rather than wood fired!
We watched the entire process of manufacture from the throwing of the clay, pressing into the moulds (all done by hand), to drying racks & kilns, application of a milky glaze with fine glass particles to achieve an end shine, and then the meticulous hand painting process. Each and every single tile is done like this! The day we visited, the painting artists were working on reproducing a centuries old panel, and the process involved trace, charcoal and very fine paint brushes. It was absolutely beautiful to witness a process which has remained the same for centuries and gave us an incredible appreciation for the workmanship in the tiles we saw adorning buildings across the city. (Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos)
Since one of my favourite things to do in cities we visit is to discover unusual items in flea markets, we visited Fiera da Ladra the city's Saturday market. Many websites I read said it was full of junk, but I suppose all of those things are certainly in the eye of the beholder, because I think they show a slice of the cultural life of a city - & we loved this one! Although tile facades across the city are protected from demolition, there are still many being uncovered as building occurs or from warehouse supplies, so there is significant number of antique dealers selling them. One of the best value was a dealer at this flea market. Laid out on an old sheet, the man in this market had quite an array of options to purchase. I bought 4 matching tiles which date back to 1650, and Lorenzo and bought 4 dating to 1750. The ages are authenticated by colours used, colour intensity size and brushwork. I plan to make perspex boxes to display these tiles as they are definitely a work of art worth preserving.
If you are on the hunt for antique tiles in Lisbon another well known shop is Solar Rua Dom Pedro V, 68-70, Bairro Alto. This shop has an enormous array of tiles well displayed for sale in period of manufacture. Any tiles with people, in particular faces, are considerably more expensive due to the exertise requires to achieve this but they are divine!. This shop is much more expensive than you will find in the flea market, but the quality and choice is extensive. Even though I had bought a set of 4 dating around 1640 in the market, I still fell in love with one in Solar so bought it - just the side of a face (less than a front on version and within my budget!). You also receive a certificate of authenticity stating the age of your tile.
Then to top off my total tile immersion, I visited the fabulous National Tile Museum in Lisbon. This place is extremely interesting, a very well curated museum, especially if you like cultural iconography. It is housed in the monastic buildings of the Madre de Deus Convent, which was founded in 1509 and renovated to its former glory after the Great Earthquake. The museum is housed in the rooms around the cloister and at the far side of the cloister is a magnificent chapel filled with superb ornately painted tiles. This church is so richly decorated because it belonged to the household of Queen Leonor who in the years after the death of her only son Prince Afonso in 1491, spent much of her time praying and living in this convent.

This is the catalogue system used at Fabrica Sant'Ana to chose your tile colour & pattern
This dealer at Feira da Ladra had a very good selection of tiles at a very fair price for their age and hand made execution
Solar Antique Tile Shop in Bairro Alto - a huge range of tiles
This is the tile I bought from SOLAR and it is authenticated as being made between 1720-1750 
The chapel in the convent of Madras de Deus which now houses the National Tile Museum