Art and Soul of Portugal


A family trip to Portugal sends this stylist on a love affair with tile.

Upon arrival, visitors of Portugal will realize they’re somewhere very special. There, the light has an ethereal quality that makes the colors seem more alive, and although it’s not located on the Mediterranean, the country has a Mediterranean vibe.

When my family and I visited Portugal last summer, we experienced its rich culture. We listened to the traditional music, called Fado, ate outside and drank Vinho Verde (young “green” wine), which was brought to our table in pottery jugs. We watched elderly women dressed in traditional black outfits sell dried fruits and nuts in the seaside town of Nazare, and we wandered up and down the narrow cobbled streets, stopping often at the innumerable small pastry shops for coffee and pasteis de nata, the addictive Portuguese custard tarts.

Lantern-ObidosWhat I loved the most, though, were the tiles. Beautifully patterned tiles were everywhere – on elegant buildings, humble abodes, sidewalks, walls (inside and out) and even some ceilings. Many were old and cracked, but that only added to their charm and to the presence of history and art surrounding us.

When we returned to the U.S., with tiles my husband somehow managed to fit in our suitcase, I felt we had brought a piece of Portugal home with us. Then I discovered a showroom in New York City devoted to Portuguese tiles. I soon found myself at the Interior Design Building on East 61st Street, excited to pay a visit to Solar Antique Tiles and to meet the owner, Pedro Leitao.

In 1946, Leitao and his large family moved into a 17th-century house in Lisbon that would typically be covered in tiles – on the wainscoting, chimneys, staircases – but for some reason wasn’t. His father set out to remedy the situation and spent the next 15 years buying tiles to do so.

Thirty-three years later Leitao  came to New York with a realization to start a business using his father’s stock. Leitao later expanded into Dutch, Spanish, English, Italian and Islamic tiles. The tiles have been removed from buildings and palaces, dating as far back as the 16th century up to the early part of the 20th century. When it comes to buying tiles, the Solar Antique Tiles owner only buys those he loves. In fact, there are some tiles he loves too much to sell; these can be found in a private collection displayed in his office.

While each project is special to Leitao, he speaks with particular pride about a church designed in classical Roman style being built in Gabon in Africa. The custom-made tiles are blue and white, and depict religious scenes interspersed with images of animals and African plants. Tiles such as these have been used for the decoration of churches since the 16th century. It’s wonderful that such a magnificent and ancient craft is not lost in modern time

Untitled-1 Azulejo is the Portuguese word for glazed tile. Although tiles didn’t originate in Portugal, they have been an important part of the country’s art, architecture and culture for over 500 years, and today, visitors to Portugal are surrounded by the rich tapestries created by azulejos that span more than half a millennium of history and art.  

Tiles can be traced back to ancient Egyptian decorations and Babylonian Mesopotamian architecture. In Portugal, tile production didn’t begin in earnest until the middle of the 16th century, with the greatest influences coming from Antwerp, Holland, Italy and some Arabic heritages. In fact, the word azulejo comes from the Arabic word for polished stone. Tiles were always painted and never press molded, making it possible to depict complex designs, including historical scenes and stories.

In the 17th century, elaborate and colorful decorations, such as scrolls and foliage, became popular. Blue and white tiles from the Netherlands, influenced by Chinese porcelain, came into fashion; this style had so much success in Portugal that blue and white tiles seemed to cover the entire country.

The late 17th century through the 18th century is seen as the golden age of the azulejo. The rich advertised their status with these tiles. New palaces, churches, convents and monasteries were built, and tile scenes were commissioned to decorate them inside and out. While the church continued to commission religious themes, secular orders employed a more baroque and rococo style with mythological, hunting and war scenes. Daily court life was also very popular, with designs representing pastoral and bucolic scenes, and promenades of aristocratic couples.

The 19th century saw a return to the virtue and simplicity of the antique world. It was during this time that tile factories began producing a less expensive standard-pattern tile by using semi-industrial techniques, such as transfer prints. Some tile makers preferred the non-industrialized, hand-painted designs, such as flower vases, trees and allegorical figures in the trompe-l’oeil technique.

Tile designs of the 20th century followed prevalent European styles of the time, including Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The 1950s and urban development brought about a revival in tile design, but on a modern scale. A new generation of architects commissioned artists to create tile panels for their projects, such as the new Lisbon Metro.

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