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Azulejos on a façade in Lisbon, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Lisbon’s small polished stones
by Esther Schulze-Tsatsas
8/24/2012

As is generally known, the façade is a building’s face. Yet since façades have become predominantly functional elements, since they have begun to insulate, ventilate, shade and do much, much more, their character has suffered somewhat. Nowadays it is rare to see a new façade that tells a story and imparts a special charm to its own cityscape.

A little more character here and there would certainly do most cities the world of good. Considering the example set by Lisbon, one soon finds a number of very convincing answers to the question as to how they once achieved this effect. Images of these colorful façades gleaming in the sunlight that fill the Portuguese capital become engrained in the minds of anyone who visits. Countless small tiles decorate the Lisboans’ homes and churches, museums and palaces alike. However, centuries at the mercy of the harsh Atlantic climate and infinite hours of sunshine have worked to accelerate their deterioration, which underscores the ailing charm of the city today.

Like witnesses to a bygone age, the ceramic wall coverings tell of their eventful history with images of naval battles, floral still-lifes and all kinds of Middle-Eastern decoration. “Azulejos” refers to the colorfully painted, glazed ceramic tiles and literally means “little polished stones”. Their roots can be found in Persia, but in Portugal they are the legacy of the country’s occupation by the Moors in the Middle Ages and are still treated as a key cultural asset today. The use of these tiles for façades may go back centuries, but the Portuguese still cherish their azulejos as much as ever and campaign for their preservation at the highest political level. “Museu Nacional do Azulejo”, which opened in Lisbon in 1960, documents the history of these small stones in Portugal – from their beginnings to the present day.

Nautical sceneries are a common motive of the ceramic wall coverings, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Azulejo literally means “little polished stone”, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Tiles decorate residential houses as well as public buildings, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Geometrical decor, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The Azulejos have their roots in Persia, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Numerous façades tell of the eventful history of Lisbon, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Floral ornamentation, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The country’s occupation by the Moors brought the tile art to Portugal, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Azulejos at the Portuguese Expo pavillon by Alvaro Siza from 1998, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The tiles are an integral part of Lisbon’s cityscape, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The tradition of the ceramic walls is maintained until today, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas