If you’ve ever visited or seen pictures of the gorgeous cities of Portugal, you’ve likely noticed the exquisitely painted tiles that adorn the buildings’ façades. These luminous and captivating embellishments are called azulejos, and they are one of the most distinctive features of urban Portuguese architecture and design. Gracing the exterior as well as the interior of many edifices, they serve as both a functional and beautifying addition to each city’s landscape.
Though azulejos did not originate in Portugal, it is there that the craft has truly blossomed and remains alive still to this day. Coming from origins of a purely decorative function, the tiles have evolved into an art form of their own. And as they have been adapted and evolved there over the centuries, they’ve become one of the most iconic aspects of the country’s history, architecture, and culture.
The Origins of Azulejos in Europe
Though the first known glazed tiles originated in the regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia during the 27th century BCE, it wasn’t until the 13th century CE that the technique was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by way of the Moors from the Middle East. The craft was originally developed to imitate Byzantine and Roman mosaics, and it is for that reason that the tiles are called azulejos—a word derived from the Arabic word “zellige,” which means polished stone. Some of the earliest productions of tile in Europe began in Seville, Spain—where the tiles were glazed and cut into smaller pieces then reassembled to form geometric patterns.
Portuguese king Manuel I fell in love with this technique after a visit to Seville in 1503, and he later introduced the craft to his home country. Azulejos were used extensively in the Sintra National Palace—just outside of Lisbon—and from there, the Portuguese love affair with azulejos only grew. This was so much so that they even adopted the Moorish tradition of horror vacui (or the fear of empty space) and began to cover walls completely with the glazed tiles.
The Portuguese use of azulejos evolved dramatically throughout the years, and each region of the country developed its own unique and characteristic way of glazing and using the tiles. Though azulejos came to Europe primarily as an artisanal discipline, in Portugal, it developed into a high art form in its own right.[…]