The Rich History of Portuguese Azulejo

November 20, 2020

If you’ve been watching home renovation shows on HGTV, you’re probably familiar with decorative, unglazed cement tiles specified for durability and installed for either flooring or kitchen backsplash. But did you know this art-form has been popular since the 13th century when the Moors brought Islamic mosaic tile art to Spain? Moorish patterns include interlocking curvilinear forms, geometric shapes and floral motifs. 

In Portugal, these tiles are called azulejo. 

In the 15th century, azulejo was introduced to Portugal by King Manuel I. He had visited the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and was so awe struck by its Moorish decorative majesty, he was inspired to decorate his Palace in Sintra with this tile display.

As Italy decorated blank walls with frescoes, Portugal filled both interior and exterior walls with azulejos depicting religious scenes in churches or historical victories in palaces. These depictions not only told a story, they had a huge visual impact! In Europe, Portugal became the center and hub of this craftsmanship. Flemish and Italian artisans moved to Portugal to perfect their handiwork and designs. From blue and white to poly-chrome, this unique ornamental art form and technique was embraced.  

Through the centuries, azulejo decoration continued to dominate.

The nobility ensured the craft flourished by having the interior walls of their homes decorated with customized depictions of hunting, mythological scenes, or family heritage portraits. A big earthquake hit Lisbon in 1755 and the use of azulejo revetment (panel style) for reconstruction proved to be effective and low cost.

By the 19th century when the industrial revolution began, new designs emerged as cities and urban areas grew in population with more individualistic sensibilities.  Facades in azulejo became a status symbol for merchants commissioning designs related to their trade.  

Today, azulejo decorate almost everything.

Walking through Portuguese cities and towns, you see it on public artwork, churches, restaurants, train and subway stations, homes and street signs. Designs range from traditional motifs to bold modern art.

Although azulejo is not a Portuguese invention, they have been used imaginatively and consistently in Portugal. The visual art of azulejo is so ingrained in its history and culture, it has become a national point of pride to its people and the world.

Designers and artists continue to be inspired by these beautiful tiles in their own work. See our interpretation in our Azulejo and Porto pillows. 

This blog post was written by Rosemarie De Asis.