Short history of ceramic art in Portugal

Moorish origins
Nowadays the term Azulejo is synonymous for the famous Spanish and Portuguese tiles. However, the word originally comes from the Arabic Azzelij or Al Zulaij - flat or polished stone. This linguistic transformation shows where this style of southern European tiles originally came from: It originated from the Moorish caliphates and kingdoms which had dominated the development of the Iberian Peninsula since the 8th. century.
Portugal started to import files from Valencia (Spain) in the second half of the 15th. century. These were initially mosaic floor tiles, often for churches or cloisters (e.g. Alcobaca). Later on, tiles were increasingly used to cover walls as well. Inspired by a visit to Castile (Spain), King Manuel started to import files from Spain to Sintra in Portugal.
The impressive Palacio Nacional de Sintra not far from Lisbon, still shows today the chronological development of tile-making techniques such as Corda, Seca, Aresta and Fayence. A visit to this palace is an ideal place to view and compare the various techniques. It is easy to make a day trip from Lisbon to Sintra with the local train.
In case you are not able to visit Sintra yourself, the following text describes a few of the stages in the development of tile manufacturing over the centuries.
Palacio_Nacional_Sintra
Palacio Nacional de Sintra, close to Lisbon
The oldest Moorish manufacturing method was the labour-intensive Alicatado technique (Alicatados = mosaic tiles). With this method, lots of different small geometrical shapes are cut out of a slab of soft clay and then glazed in different colours. The pieces are then pressed into a mortar bed to form mosaic patterns. You can see this in the Palacio Nacional e.g. in the so-called Sala dos Arabes.
Sala_dos_Arabes_Alicatado-Fliesen
Sala dos Arabes, Alicatado tiles
Alicatado_Fliesen_Technik
Detail view of Alicatado tiles (Sala dos Arabes)
For the Corda-Secan technique from the 13th. century (Cuerda Seca = dry string), grooves were made in the soft clay and string soaked in wax or oil was pressed into the grooves. This ensured that the glaze colours of the different parts of the design did not mix together, either when applying the glaze or during firing in the kiln.
Corda_Seca_Fliesen
Corda-Seca tiles
Alicatado_Corda_Seca_Fliesen
Corda-Seca and Alicatado tiles

The so-called Aresta or Cuenca technique appeared towards the end of the 15th. century (Cuenca = trough or hollow). A mould or pattern is pressed into the soft clay and the clay around the mould forms into raised ridges. The glaze with the colour is then filled into the depressions. The designs are similar to the Corda-Seca technique, but the fired glaze is more resistant to wear and abrasion. The so-called relief tiles which we sell (picture below right) copy this technique and are based on the old designs. Each of the fields of the design are elaborately coloured by hand by pipetting the glaze using a thin hollow needle.
Relieffliese_Fliesenmuseum_Lissabon
Moorish pattern,  tile museum in Lisbon
Relief_Fliese_Viuva_Lamego
Modern relief tile "Castil" based on an old design
 
Fayence technique
The Majolica or Fayence technique originated in the middle of the 16th. century. This technical innovation allowed a pictorial representation for the first time.
Fayencefliesen_Lissabon
Fayence tiles
The term Majolika is probably derived from the city of Malaga in southern Spain, from where ceramic products were sent to Valencia and then on to Italy, above all to Naples. They were used to decorate the palaces and buildings of the court in Naples. Workshops soon started to manufacture such tiles in Italy as well, to a lesser extent for everyday life but rather more as magnificent and luxurious products.
The term Fayence comes from the Italian ceramic centre in Faenza. With the Fayence technique, the already white glazed and fired tile is painted with coloured glaze and fired again. In the second firing, the colour glazes mix with the milky underlying glaze to form a robust and colour-fast surface.
Fayence tile painters need to be able to think and work abstractly, since the intended colours are partly only visible after the second firing. Furthermore, it is not possible to correct mistakes in the colour glazes after applying them. 
 
Ceramic art in blue/white
The import of Chinese porcelain to Europe in the 17th. century started a tile fashion with the colour combination blue/white which initially appeared in Holland. Such tiles were even used in Holland to decorate the kitchens of simple houses. Unfortunately, most of these wall decorations have been lost in Holland by now. In Portugal, above all palaces and country houses, which are better preserved, were decorated with such tiles.
At the end of the 17th. century, Portuguese tile painters developed simple tile motifs with figures, animals, flowers etc. A single motif is shown on each tile (see our "Motif tiles" / "Single figure tiles"). They were used in a few representative rooms such as hallways and kitchens. It is suspected that this type of tile was used to teach the apprentice tile painters and for practising.
Motivfliesen_Lissabon
Motive tiles, end of the 17th. century
 
In our tile series Patterned tiles 14x14 you can find a selection of modern motif tiles which are based on these old designs (Braga series, e.g. motif tile "dog").

"Motivfliese Hund"
Motif tile Dog
"Motivfliese Korb"
Motif tile Basket
 
Fliesen_Wandbild_Sintra
Detail of mural,, Palacio Nacional de Sintra
Migration of craftsmen between Holland and Portugal lead time and again to an exchange and further development of manufacturing techniques and artistic representations. In Portugal too, tile painting was done increasingly by artists rather than craftsmen and young talents were trained as painters. Baroque style with large murals became popular. Religious and mythical representations, hunting, agriculture and social events were displayed in an opulent style.

The demands of the customers increased in the middle of the 18th. century as new wealth was generated by business with the colonies (such as Brazil). The decorations on many public buildings in Portugal such as railway stations and town halls - with tiles both inside and outside - originated at this time. Murals tended to be more realistic although they also included style elements from rococo. An example of this is the Sao Bento Railway Station in Porto.
=Bahnhof_Porto_Sao_Bente
Sao Bento railway station in Porto, built 1916
 
The tile manufacture Viuva Lamego was founded in Lisbon in 1849. The facade of the original workshop building is decorated with murals.
Fliesenmanufaktur_Viuva_Lamego
Viuva Lamego tile manufacture, Lisbon
 
Fliesen_Fassade_Viuva_Lamego
Detail of the facade:
founded in 1849 
The above building still contains a shop with tile exhibition and sale of Viuva Lamego tiles. A visit there is very worthwhile.
Address:
Viuva Lamego (Ladengeschäft)
Largo do Intendente 25
1100-285 Lissabon
 
In the meantime, Viuva Lamego tile production takes place in Sintra, not far from Lisbon. Most of our range of Portuguese tiles comes from Sintra. In addition to hand-painted tiles with traditional  designs, very large murals for public buildings are still being produced there in cooperation with internationally renowned artists.
Impressive examples of this are the murals in the metro (underground) station Oriente in Lisbon which were installed in the station for the world exhibition "Expo 98".

You should also definitely visit the tile museum Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon. The museum is in old cloister (Convento da Madre de Deus), and parts of the building itself are also museum exhibits, e.g. the tiled corridors.
After finishing the round tour you can enjoy the attractive interior courtyard of the museum café.
Address:
Museu Nacional de Azulejo
Rua de Madre de Deus
1900-312 Lissabon

Glossary:

Alicatado technique: Alicatados = mosaic tiles
Lots of different small geometrical shapes are cut out of clay slabs and then glazed in different colours. The pieces are then pressed into a mortar bed to form mosaic patterns.

Azulejo: comes from the Arabic word Azzelij or Al Zulaij = flat or polished stone.

Corda-Seca technique: Cuerda Seca = dry string
Grooves were made in the soft clay and string soaked in wax or oil was pressed into the grooves. This ensured that the glaze colours of the different parts of the design did not mix together, either when applying the glaze or during the firing process.

Cuenca technique: Cuenca = Mulde, Höhlung
Also called Aresta technique.
A mould or pattern is pressed into the soft clay and the clay around the mould forms into raised ridges. The glaze with the colour is then filled into the depressions.

Fayence technique:
Also called Majolika technique.
The term Fayence comes from the Italian ceramic centre Faenza. With this method the already white glazed and fired tile is painted with coloured glaze and fired again. In the second firing, the colour glazes mix with the milky underlying glaze to form a robust and colour-fast surface.
The term Majolika is probably derived from the city of Malaga in southern Spain, from where ceramic products were sent to Valencia and then on to Italy, above all to Naples.
However, there is another interpretation for the same term: the Spanish tiles were sent via Majorca to Italy. So the term could have come from the name of the island of Majorca.

This text as a pdf file:
"Short history of ceramic art in Portugal" (ca. 2,7 MB)

Text and Photos © Nicola Krämer 1/2013