The tradition of tiles in Portugal is not only old but also the most representative of the country. The story tells that it started when, in 1498, D Manuel I King of Portugal made a trip to Spain and marvelled at the splendour of the Moorish interiors and the colours of the wall coverings and murals.
Following his desire to build his residence in the image of the palaces visited in Seville, Toledo and Zaragoza, the tile arrived in Portugal. The National Palace of Sintra, which was used as his residence, became one of the best and most original examples of early Portuguese tiles, at that time still imported from factories in Seville.
Despite the archaic techniques coming from abroad, as well as the tradition of Islamic decoration in the decorative exaggerations of complex geometric patterns, its entry into Portugal denotes an influence of European taste due to the Gothic vegetable motifs and a particular Portuguese aesthetic.
But we start with order: where does the word azulejo come from? It is an Arabic term, azzelij, which means small polished stone and is the designation given to a ceramic artefact with little thickness, usually square, being one of the surfaces glazed as a result of firing the coating, called enamel, becoming this way bright and waterproof. This surface can have a single color or have several colours, be smooth or embossed.
The motifs represented vary between the narrations of historical circumstances, mythology, religion and various decoration motifs. The Portuguese overseas empire had an important influence on the diversity of forms; assimilated shapes and decorations of other civilisations.
Portuguese tiles represent the imagination of Portuguese people, their attraction to real history and their complicity in cultural exchange.The new tile industry is flourishing with orders from the nobility and clergy. Large panels are custom made to fill the walls of churches, convents, palaces, manors and gardens. The inspiration comes from decorative arts, textiles, jewellery, engravings and travels of the Portuguese to the East. Large scenographic compositions appear, a striking feature of the Baroque, with geometric, figurative and vegetal themes of exotic fauna and flora.
At the end of the 17th century, the quality of production and execution is higher, there are whole families involved in this art of making tiles, and some painters begin to assert themselves as artists, starting to sign their works, thus beginning the Masters Cycle .
After the 1755 earthquake, the reconstruction of Lisbon will impose another rhythm in the production of standard tiles, today called pombaline, used to decorate the new buildings. The tiles are manufactured in series, combining industrial and artisanal techniques. At the end of the 18th century, the tile is no longer exclusive to the nobility and the clergy, the wealthy bourgeoisie makes the first orders for their farms and palaces, the panels sometimes tell the story of the family and even of their social ascension.
From the 19th century, the tile gains more visibility, leaves the palaces and churches to the facades of the buildings, in a close relationship with architecture. The urban landscape is illuminated by the light reflected on the glazed surfaces. The tile production is intense, new factories are created in Lisbon, Porto and Aveiro. Later, already in the middle of the 20th century, the tile enters the railway and metro stations, and some are signed by renowned artists.