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.
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.
“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.
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.