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Tile in style: Azulejos

Azulejos mounted on building exteriors in Faro, Portugal

What’s the first thing that pops up in your mind, when you envision the country Portugal? Cristiano Ronaldo? Port wine? Sardines? The Fado? Probably a whole lot more, given the country's rich heritage and culture. However, if you’re not thinking about this one thing, vitally interwoven with the Portuguese culture, you will now! Widely distributed all around the country, spotted in every shape and size, Portugal is the largest ambassador of the most intricately, beautifully handcrafted tile ‘The Azulejo’.

The essence of these tiles lies in their name itself as the word ‘azulejo’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘azzelij’ that primarily means ‘small radiant stone’. Although not originally crafted in Portugal, the azulejos made their way into the lives of the Portuguese in the late 1400’s. As per ancient art history, it was King Manuel who is to be credited for introducing Portugal to these mesmerizing tiles, as it caught his eye during his visit to Seville in Spain. Captivated by these glistering tiles that adorned the city, he made it his mission to bring this scintillating tile art to Portugal and used it to decorate the walls of his castle i.e. the Sintra National Palace. And the rest is history.

Azulejos along sidewalks in Lisbon, Portugal

An exorbitant object of great rarity and a symbol of wealth for the locals, azulejos have existed in Portugal since the 15th century, becoming an art form in itself, largely used even today. As alluring and exceptional as they may sound, these hand painted ceramic tiles are a culmination of intense labour.

It all begins with the amalgamation of clay and water to form a dough, which is then massaged onto a tray, cut as per requirement, dried and then scorched in a kiln. The end product is then enamelled with powdered glass. Once well set, you move onto the final picture that is either transferred via powdered charcoal using a perforated tracing paper or drawn straight onto the tile. The secret to long lasting azulejos lies in the paint, as the glass powder and oxides it contains prevents its lustre from diminishing over time. The post painting scorch is the final step that sets the painting, ensuring the fusing of the glaze, giving you the final azulejo tile in all its glory!

There’s no way you can envision Portugal, particularly Lisbon, without visualizing colorful azulejo tiles lining the outside of churches, metro stations, cafes and even houses. The surge in utilization of these decorative tiles arose due to their low maintenance compared to the otherwise utilized fabrics for aesthetics. Although the 19th and 20th century has seen a resurgence in azulejo tile popularity due to its more modernized standing, while still honouring the integrity of the original art form, nothing can override what is called as ‘the golden age of the azulejos’ in 18th century Portugal. This period is identified by its skyrocketing azulejo production and sales as the furor to envelope entire churches, houses, monasteries and other places with this divine tile art exploded.

Wall panting inspired by the azulejos at the Fontainhas in Panjim, Goa

In India, a country which is home to an uncountable number of art forms, azulejos also make the list. However, this remarkable tile art is exclusive only to the state of Goa along with some of the most magnificent pieces of architecture, as a result of a long Portuguese reign. Although seen adorning multiple buildings, schools, public parks and houses, the most prominent adaptation of azulejos in Goa are the name plates and murals. A salient feature of traditional Goan houses, the azulejo name plaques attune with any setting and layout due to its diverse nature.

A timeless and cherished part of their magnificent landscape, both Portugal and Goa are incomplete without the azulejos.


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