I doubt you can walk more than ten metres through a traditional Portuguese town and not spot a ceramic tile or several! The unique craft of azulejos portugueses is an unmistakable feature of these lovely old houses. And just as you can’t walk far without seeing them, I find it impossible to walk any distance without photographing some!
Azulejos date back to the 13th century, when the Moors invaded the land that today forms Spain and Portugal. The word comes from an Arabic word az-zulayj, meaning ‘polished stone’. At first the tiles were purely geometric in design, obeying the Islamic law that prohibits the portrayal of living figures.
The main influence on early Portuguese tilework was actually Spanish; King Manuel I decorated his own palace in Sintra with them, inspired by seeing them in Seville. And when the Portuguese started to produce their own tiles they quickly moved away from the Moorish tradition. Animals and people became common images, used to illustrate religious, mythological or historical themes. The most common colour scheme is this blue and white one, which was influenced by a fashion for Ming Dynasty porcelain in the 17th century; these are the ones that for me really shout Portugal!
From the 19th century onwards, the use of azulejos exploded, as did the colour palette. Today, it is common to see them decorating churches, monasteries, restaurants, bars, railway stations, palaces, and regular homes. They are also used extensively in interior decoration, as well as on street signs, public benches and walls.
Many of the ones used on buildings have reverted to the tradition of geometrical shapes; they remind me a little of American patchwork designs. Look for instance at the star shape decorating Tavira’s railway station in my post about the sculptures there.
Even when they are worn, or maybe repaired with mismatching designs as in the last of my examples below, I find them rather beautiful and very distinctive. So here’s my own patchwork of azulejos for the Photographing Public Art challenge. The first two were taken in Faro (the first is actually the wall of the house where we rented an apartment); the remainder are from Tavira.
I visited Faro and Tavira in April 2022