Discovering the Identity of Lisbon through the Azulejos


Square, shiny ceramic tiles, colorfully painted, cover the city. They cover its walls, its tabletops, its staircase banisters. Its bathroom and powder room interiors, its churches inside and out.

All around, azulejos.

They take their name from the Persian al zulayj, meaning “polished stone”. Azulejos in Alfama, LisbonBut they are much more than polished stones. They are little works of art, that put together build the image and the identity of Lisbon. They tell the story of the city, and manifest the artistic trends of the times, tirelessly, for the past 500 years.

A Bit of History…

The ceramic tiles were first brought to Portugal from the Moors, in the 16th Century, when they were used to sketch mostly biblical and mythological scenes. About a hundred years later, the Portuguese started to imitate the Persian carpets and built them out of tiles on their walls. The 18th Century brought the “Golden Age of the Azulejos” when these unique hand-made works of art were replaced by mass production. The notorious repetitive pattern tiles were born out of this azulejos era.

    Azulejos art in Lisbon    Art of azulejos in LisbonAzulejos in Lisbon

After Lisbon emerged from the Great Earthquake it survived in 1755, the azulejos became a practical, durable material to rebuild the destroyed city. The locals started putting small shrine-like painted tile designs above their home entrances, believing it would protect them from future disasters.

The City of Million-Color Tiles

Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas, Lisbon
Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas, Lisbon, 1865, showing allegories of science, agriculture, commerce and industry.

Climbing the hilly roads of the Alfama neighborhood, I learned to see the painted tiles with new eyes. Strolling on the narrow pathways of Chiado I understood that they can be more than “ceramic wallpaper” for clean bathrooms. The ceramic white squares have been canvases for expressing hundreds of years of art. Storytelling mediums, that left a deep, colorful print on the history and culture of Lisbon. The poems they would silently recite could be as long as hundreds of tiles put together, or as short as a bunch evoking a domestic scene or a craft tradition.

The azulejos, are the great identity of Lisbon. And they peek out from everywhere.

Multicolored or monochromatic, they fill the streets with myriads of shiny shades. They run through Lisbon like a silver lining, waking up the soul of this Atlantic windy city.

Museo de los Azulejos, Lisbon
The cloister of the 16th Century convent where the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) is housed.

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