Photograph by REBECCA STUMPF
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Installed in 1910, azulejos portraying the founding of the Carmelite Order decorate the 18th-century Carmo Church in Porto, Portugal.
Photograph by REBECCA STUMPF

How Portugal keeps alive an iconic 500-year-old art form

These painted tiles tell tales and endure through time—and theft.

This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In an obscure alleyway near Lisbon’s Alcântara neighborhood, the Fábrica Sant’Anna has been producing azulejos—the Portuguese word for wall tiles—roughly the same way since the workshop’s founding in 1741. At long tables scattered with pots of myriad colors, artisans paint angels and flowers, graceful swirls and bold lines, onto gleaming white ceramic squares.

But if Sant’Anna’s buzzing factory has become something of a pilgrimage site for visitors to the Portuguese capital, seeing azulejos in Lisbon requires no effort at all. You’d have to walk the streets with your eyes closed to miss them.

Throughout Portugal, azulejos are an inextricable part of the landscape. But like the tropical trees of Lisbon, brought to the city from faraway lands centuries ago, azulejos are particularly representative of Portuguese identity precisely because they’re so tied to other latitudes.

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In repeating motifs or one-of-a-kind panels, the five-by-five-inch icons lend character to buildings and monuments inside and out, but it’s in the landscape of a thousand designs that their multicultural richness shines through.

Although quieter in the wake of COVID-19, without groups of visitors peeking in at the process, the country’s azulejo workshops continue to reproduce classics and devise new patterns, both for local and international admirers. The popularity of this 500-year-old tradition—which has endured fashions, theft, and modernization—remains undimmed.

At the helm of the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon, Maria Antónia Pinto de Matos cringes every time she has to translate the word azulejo. “All historical and cultural nuances get lost in translation,” she says.

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Introduced by the Moors in the 13th century, azulejos weren’t produced widely in Portugal until the 1500s. Each tile conveys a unique story about the artist who created the design, the factory where it was made, or the time period during which it was produced.

“Tile” says nothing of the azulejo’s artistry, detail, and continuous evolution in both technique and aesthetic; nor can it convey how azulejos are as much about light and reflection as patterns or colors. The many influences that have gone into the development of azulejos would never fit into a single panel—though, taken together, they create a multifaceted picture of Portugal’s history at home and abroad.

The museum is housed in an early 16th-century convent constructed when explorers, such as Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, were expanding European power and influence into the Americas and the Pacific.

The museum’s collection spans five centuries of history, from the geometric patterns rooted in azulejos’ Islamic origins to contemporary designs familiar to anyone who rides Lisbon’s metro. On the museum’s upper floor, one display in particular leaves a lasting impression: a 72-foot-wide panoramic panel of Lisbon prior to the devastating earthquake of 1755.

Ironically, Lisbon’s greatest misfortune marked a turning point for azulejos. Previously mostly an indoor feature, azulejos made the leap from interior to exterior as the city was rebuilt with the reassuring depiction of saints and angels to guard facades from future harm. Highly resistant to the whims of weather and relatively cheap to produce, azulejos became the dominant cladding solution in the 19th century, one that simultaneously allowed vivid embellishment.

“Simpler designs and industrialization boosted the pretty tiled facades you see downtown,” says Verónica Leitão, a third-generation member of the family-owned shop, Solar Antiques. She singles out a floral Pombaline pattern, named for the mighty Marquis de Pombal, who spearheaded the rebuilding of Lisbon. A dominant feature of Lisbon’s cityscape, this type of azulejo could be produced cheaply and quickly to speed up the pace of reconstruction.

While tiles in Porto and the north display a preference for relief, the multitude of azulejo patterns throughout the country hasn’t muted a strong storytelling dimension or a love for customized panels. Battlefields, biblical depictions, bourgeois scenes, and exotic landscapes pop up indoors and out, assuming gigantic proportions at landmarks such as Lisbon’s São Roque church or Porto’s São Bento train station.

The tiles also leave their mark globally. “The presence of azulejos is traceable all along the old commercial routes,” says Francisco Tomás, marketing manager at Fábrica Sant’Anna. “Even today, alongside new projects, we restore works we’ve completed for far-off locations, some from over a hundred years ago.” Their work includes towering endeavors such as the São Francisco church and convent, in Salvador, Brazil, and the Bank of Angola in the capital city of Luanda.

Lisbon’s metro stations, arguably the best places to see modern azulejos, benefited from maintained cultural ties. “In the mid-20th century, azulejos had a worn-out image. It was only when Brazilians started contemporary [design] experiments—as in some of Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture—that we changed gear, and the stations are beautiful evidence of the new era,” says Leonor Sá, coordinator of the SOS Azulejo Project, which helps to safeguard the tiles’ heritage.

Responsible for the azulejos in most metro stations, the 170-year-old Fábrica Viúva Lamego housed the permanent workshop of artists such as the late Maria Keil, who designed the first stations, and still works with 93-year-old Manuel Cargaleiro, who recently inaugurated a panel in the Paris Metro. “Inviting artists to set up their studio in our premises is part of our identity,” says owner Gonçalo Conceição.

Azulejos have become victims of their own abiding popularity. Stolen tiles, removed from facades to make an easy profit, began showing up at flea markets. “We worked on protective laws and awareness campaigns, and attitudes have changed,” says Sá. “Locals are more protective and tourists more concerned about provenance.”

Related: Ancient Roman Tile Work around the World

It’s not surprising that azulejos have become postcards of Portugal. But, in their dovetailing of many cultural encounters, azulejos also evoke the act of traveling. From Lisbon to Salvador, Brazil, to Goa, India, azulejos’ long journey has always been written over land and the seven seas.

Based in Lisbon, Helena Amante is a writer and art director whose work covers culture, travel, and creativity.