Architecture Heritage Cities Heritage Education Museums

The Portuguese Azulejos: a heritage over the seas

Historic Center of São Luis, Maranhão Brazil. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida

Tiles, azulejos (Portuguese spelling) or azzelij (Arab spelling) are ceramics placed in the wall and widely used in countries of Arab culture. They are introduced in the Iberian peninsula and today are a prominent symbol of Portugal.

Imagine, we were in 1500: Brazil was colonised by Portuguese. In the first urban settlements, catechisms and extractions of all kinds were made in our rich territories. That was development, they said. But aside from the delicate issues that colonisation can address, today I want to bridge one of the most remarkable architectural technology legacies of the Portuguese in the Brazilians lands: the azulejos! 

The azulejos tiles are utilised in different architectural solutions such as interns, water wells and facades colouring and protecting the buildings from the weather changes as protection against heat.

I’m from the city of Azulejos

Me at the Historic City Center of São Luis, Brazil.

I’m proudly Brazilian, from an island in the Northeast of Brazil named São Luis (honour of the homonymous french king).  As a strategic place next Amazonia, we were discovered by the French in 1612, then retook for the Portuguese. São Luis is known as “The city of Azulejos”. It has a typical urban and architectonical  Portuguese characteristics that made the city nominated in 1997 as World Heritage of Humanity. By Unesco, they described Sao Luis as:

“Harmoniously expanded through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the historic centre is an outstanding example of a Portuguese colonial town adapted to the climatic conditions of Equatorial America, with traditional Portuguese architecture adapted to incorporate raised piers and shuttered, wooden verandas. The singularity of the construction techniques employed is expressed in the elegance of the traditional Portuguese azulejos tile work applied both as insulation and decoration”

Unesco

There is the collection of the most common patterns in the Portuguese tiles.  Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

There is the collection of the most common patterns in the Portuguese tiles at São Luis.  Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

São Luis is the largest set of Portuguese architecture in Latin America.  Approximately, we have  3.500 buildings most of them recovered by the Portuguese tiles. We are close to the Equador line, which gives the city very high temperatures, humid tropical humid climate and sea air. The buildings built with mud walls needed a coating that would withstand the demanding climatic conditions.

Let’s get the hands dirty!

In the heart of the historical centre of São Luis, there is the laboratory of conservation and restoration of the Creative Center Odylo Costa Filho.

With the help of the Architect and Conservator of this centre, Leticia Castro, she explained to me how to do an azulejo, step by step. Usually, they name tiles as cookies; they had to be modelled, cooked and decorated. So, let’s cook!

Step 1: Great argil

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Once selected, the clay is cut with a cotton thread. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

The pressure machine to compress the argil cut to make the biscuit. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

For a great recipe, we need a great ‘pasta’. Leticia indicates that quality clay is essential to have a good final product. After cutting the piece of clay, it is weighed and compressed until getting the ideal height to become a ‘cookie’.

Step 2: Molding the cookie

With a roll, Leticia finishes the pressure at the clay and with a model cut the format of a tile. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

The most common measure of biscuits from the 17th to the 19th century usually ranges from 13 to 14.5 cm. « It is never accurate! », says Leticia. Sometimes each side has the same measure that varies slightly from 13,4 cm x 13.5 cm. The tiles measuring 20 cm are from the 20th century.

Step 3: The enamel bath

Leticia applying the enamel on the clay piece. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

Leticia applying the enamel on the clay piece. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

Once dried the clay beads, the white enamel carefully applied and mixed in an industrial blender is applied. Again, the tiles are resting, so that the coating is completely dry and do a quality analysis. After drying, the tiles go to the creative phase of the process, the decoration!

Step 4: Let’s do art

The Estapilho, the decoration is made by passing the enamel on cast moulds. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

For sure, I did my own painting!

The main techniques to decorate the azulejos are the stamp (estampilho), majolica and decalcomania.

  • The Stamp technique, the decoration is made by passing the enamel on cast moulds.
  • The Majolica technique, pass the enamel over the already glazed chubby, but before we do the “sketch” of the drawing to be followed with a charcoal doll rubbed on the paper butter or vegetable that contains the perforated drawing, called the stress. After the charcoal has passed, the sketch comes out in the piece, and we cover it with the brush strokes of the enamel.
  • The Decalcomania technique, utilise decals to transfer images and place them on the tiles.

As for texture, Portuguese tiles can be smooth, semi-relief or embossed. Our case study will be a stamp style. The stamp uses a kind of decal, and the tile is carefully painted by hand.  At the stamp, the decoration is made by passing the enamel on cast moulds.

The colours are powdered pigments that are diluted and applied delicately.

Step 5: Gran finale Masterchef

Azulejos after cooking at 980°C. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

All ready! The biscuits are placed in the high-temperature oven and cook for hours at 980° C until they are ready. One should wait overnight to finally open the industrial furnace and check the quality of the parts produced. Before leaving her laboratory, we took a photograph with all the steps of the process of creating the tile in an artisan way:

Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2017

Thanks, Leticia to receive me at our laboratory and show us the art of manufacturing!

Connexion São Luis – Lisboa

I live in Évora, Portugal through the mobility program of the Master Erasmus Mundus in Heritage Studies that I’m holding. The first time that I visited Lisboa was thrilling for me. Me, from the other side of the sea, in the lands of our colonisers. As I said, my homeland preserves the characteristics of a Portuguese city.

‘It was like if I returned to São Luis for a while! I feel like home at Portugal’

Tiled facades, iron balconies, doors and windows with Venetian style openings. Touches of Arab colonisation also can be amply illustrated. Their long presence in the Iberian Peninsula has influenced European civilisation in the economy, society and culture. They left many words and expressions that enriched the Spanish and Portuguese vocabulary. Also, in the constructions in Spain and Portugal, they also went traces of technology and design of the buildings as the tiles and in the urban space, with the water systems.

The National Azulejo Museum of Portugal

Entrance of the National Azulejo Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

The entrance of the National Azulejo Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

One semester after my interview with Mrs Leticia Castro in Brazil, I visited the National Azulejo Museum of Portugal, in Lisboa.

The Museu Nacional do Azulejo is one of the most important national museums, for its unique collection – the Azulejo (tile), an artistic expression which differentiates the Portuguese culture, and for the building where it is located – the ancient Convent of Madre de Deus (Mother of God), founded in 1509 by Queen D. Leonor (1458-1525). MNAz

 

 

The National Azulejo Museum is located at the ancient Convent of Madre de Deus at Lisbon, Portugal. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

The National Azulejo Museum is located at the ancient Convent of Madre de Deus at Lisbon, Portugal. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

In addition to a truly magnificent building and adapted to receive such a collection, the National Museum of Azulejo at Lisbon goes through the history of Portuguese tiles from the 15th century to the contemporary production. The tiles, pieces that make up large panels, tell customs, daily life and religiosity in Portugal.

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

In the first panels presented by the proposed museum route, one can see the Arab influence in Portugal. Later, with the creation of new styles of decoration, the tile panels present different dynamics.

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

National Azulejo  Museum at Lisbon. Ph: Anna Karla Almeida, 2018

With the modern advent, the tiles gain new shapes, colours and meanings. For this, many of the contemporary architecture projects in Portugal carry tiles that with new patterns, still reveal what Portugal is: the country of Azulejos!

Photos: Anna Karla Almeida

We would like to thanks the Centro de Criatividade Odylo Costa Filho and Mrs Leticia Castro for the reception at their centre.

4 Comments

  1. Letícia Castro

    Que lindo! Você Anna Karla está de parabéns! Ficou ótimo! Tenho muito orgulho desse trabalho e agora de você também. Tudo isso é muito importante para nós e nosso Estado do Maranhão. Você soube valorizá- lo ainda mais. Obrigada! Continue, mais sucesso te aguarda!

    • Anna Karla Almeida

      Querida Leticia, obrigada a você pela sua imensa disponibilidade, junto do Centro de Criatividade Odylo Costa Filho por me receber e colaborar na minha investigaçao!
      Um grande abraço!

  2. Artigo muito interessante, e que linda a sua paixão para São Luis! Conhecendo Brasil e seus centros histôricos eu sei que là tem muitos desafios em preservar o patrimônio arquitectural e que isso pode dar frustrações. Sou um urbanista holandes recentemente graduado com experiência em Brasil e no patrimônio, e sempre foi meu sonho de um dia puder collaborar na revitalização do centro histôrico de São Luis para ajudar a cidade e seus azulejos a brilhar ainda mais! Desejo pra você que com sua paixão e conhecimento possa fazer o mesmo. Abr!

    • Anna Karla Almeida

      Querido Caspar, estou muito contente com seu comentario! São Luis é minha terra de origem e minha paixão, mesmo estando cá do outro lado do oceano! Espero poder um dia conhecer-te! Eu que sou mais urbanista que arquiteta, e sempre trabalhei com projetos urbanos. Mas que também amo os detalhes construtivos! Abraço!

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