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

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

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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