They have a name: Azulejos.
They were originally introduced to the Iberian area by the Moors, and their popularity continued after they left. But I didn’t know why they were originally designed with only geometric patterns of triangles, squares and diamonds though – this was apparently because many of the Moors belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam which prohibited images of living things.
However, floral patterns and religious themes began to be produced by Portuguese and Flemish artists in the 16th century, and blue, yellow and white still remained the favourite colour combination. But the ever expanding Portuguese empire provided increasingly more exotic themes and colours.
Towards the end of the 17th Century the fashion changed and blue/white tiles became popular. The association with blue tiles may tempt many to think that the word azulejo comes from the Portuguese word for blue (azul), but it is in fact much older, and stems from the Arabic word “al-zulayj” that roughly translates to “little stone”.
After the devastating earthquake of 1755 in Lisbon, there was a shift to multi-coloured tiles. It was about this time too that the Portuguese in Brazil discovered that tiles were ideal for keeping out the damp! In the rebuilt Lisbon, houses were encased in tiles, and this tradition can still be seen today.
In the early 20th Century, azulejo art had fallen out of favour, but when Lisbon was awarded Expo ‘98, city authorities decided that a former derelict riverside site was the ideal place to house this international showcase – and a new metro line was built to connect the site to the city, providing several outlets for encouraging azulejo artists to show off, and in came storytelling in tile-art – at Alameda Station, images of navigators and ships to reflect Portugal’s seafaring history, at Olivais came painted olive trees, representing the grove that once stood in the location. And at Oriente, the exit station for the Expo site, artists from five continents were given their own space to create individual works with a linking maritime theme.
Tile art has been installed in numerous other metro stations too – at Alto do Moinhos, goats butt heads, writers brandish quills and a donkey bucks, and at Cais do Sodre, giant Alice In Wonderland-type rabbits cover the train tunnel. The Metro, together with other organisations and even advertising, has encouraged the art form to regenerate itself and become, not just part of Portugal’s heritage, but part of the fabric of modern Portugal too.
The taste for blue and white never abated and some spectacular traditional examples can be seen in Porto’s São Bento railway station, and countless examples of stunning tile artwork can be found everywhere.
Today, the fashion is not so strong for modern buildings, but the art style lives on, with many homes having a set of tiles depicting a scene that might hold some personal significance, or the house name or number being decorated in the traditional style, and tile producers will happily design a personalised a set of tiles for you to put up yourself.
Almost every tourist gift shop worth its salt has traditional tiles for sale, whether in the form of pot stands or even miniaturised for fridge magnets or keyrings and so on, so the tradition lives on!
My own kitchen and bathroom, for example, are still tiled in traditional blue and white style, and very proud of them I am too!