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Lisbon Tiles

Lisbon Tiles (1A)

Something which is sure to grab your attention in Lisbon is the amount of façades, patios, walls and restaurants which proudly feature eye-catching tiles.

The city is very proud of its home-grown product and what’s more you can buy these tiles as souvenirs in specialised shops or in street markets. You will even see original postcards in kiosks which imitate their square shape and distinctive print. If you are one of those who thinks that tiles are only meant to adorn kitchens or bathrooms, Lisbon will make you think again.

Since the Portuguese King Manuel I became fascinated with Seville tiles and ordered that the National Palace of Sintra be covered with them, these small squares of baked, painted and varnished clay have become part of the city of Lisbon.

The first pieces were made by Moorish artisans using the classic geometric rules of their designs.

The arrival fifty years later of Italian artists who used a technique that made it possible to paint directly onto the tile meant that bigger pieces with more complicated designs could be produced. Many of these were inspired by the Italian renaissance. This was the moment the Portuguese tile was born and the start of its grand future, as workshops produced a continuous supply to meet demands from overseas.

In 1580 Portugal was under Spanish rule and the royal court was based in Madrid. Because of this there were very few resources within the country and only the church wanted supplies of art. Paintings, tapestries, sculptures and carvings were very expensive, and for this reason, tiles started to be used inside churches. 

During the 17th century, the design and use of these tiles underwent a transformation. Their style changed from repeated blue and yellow geometric patterns to more complex panels showing hunting, battle and dance scenes, incorporating as well religious themes, such as the lives of the saints. In addition, blue and white became popular, and another tile design appeared, the avulsa figure, which consisted of simple images like flowers and birds, and was often crafted by apprentices of the trade.

It was in this period that tiles started to be used in terraces, gardens, hospitals, residences and even in facades, something previously unknown. 

Tiles reached their decorative peak during the reign of Joao I, between 1706 and 1750. From then on, polychrome was used in their production, and panels were produced representing scenes of the genre, everyday life, as well as those reflecting the commercial world. During this period a distinct French rococo influence appeared in designs. 

The earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755 necessitated a reconstruction process of gigantic proportions - something which the Marquis of Pombal took command of. This consisted of a rational urban project which, due to time constraints, had to be based around pure and functional architecture. At this point the “padrao”, a motif made up of four repeating tiles, came back into use. This form of tile came to be known as “pombalino” and became present throughout the city, leaving its mark on the urban landscape. After the earthquake, small tile panels dedicated to the saints became prevalent in the facades of the city’s houses, in the hope that divine providence would provide protection from natural disasters. 

In addition to its insulating qualities that offer protection against damp and keep interiors cool in the summer, the tile is one of Portugal’s most renowned cultural expressions, a true national art form due to its long durability, originality and varied designs – a   reflection of changes in mentality and the collective imagination.  

Don’t worry about searching for it, Lisbon offers you examples wherever you find yourself; in its streets, gardens, bars and cafes, churches, on tables and walls… even in the metro.

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