Pottery, Mosaics and Azulejos

This collection includes ceramics for domestic use, wall decoration and pavements. They illustrate numerous types of production from diverse sources, ranging from the 15th – 20th century. We will deal with them as a whole, within the main chronological periods in which they appear and develop, whilst highlighting the main ceramic centres

15th – 16th century

Portuguese ceramic paving mosaics and painted wall-tiles (azulejos) attained a level of execution parallel only to that found in Islamic civilizations. The monochromatic ceramic mosaics found in the monastery at Alcobaça (13th cent.) and the palace of the king, D. Dinis in the castle at Leiria (14th cent.), both depict this Muslim inheritance.

By the mid-15th century, this type of pavement was replaced by another, composed of repeated interlocked octagonal modules consisting of ‘losetas’ (square pieces) and ‘alfardons’ (hexagonal pieces) – imported from Manises and which had a blue and manganese decoration ( fig. 1 ).

The Hispano-Moresque tiles, produced primarily in Seville, came to Portugal for the first time during the reign of the king, D. Manuel I.

Their remarkable polychrome relief decoration was produced using both the ‘corda seca’ (figs. 2 and 4 ) and ‘aresta’ ( fig. 3 ) techniques. With the exception of one period, in which both co-existed, it is considered that each technique had its own type of decoration, Islamic motifs being characteristic of the ‘corda seca’, whilst Gothic and Renaissance motifs were produced using the ‘aresta’ technique.

In 1503, Olivier de Gand commissioned these types of tiles on behalf of the Bishop-Count D. Jorge de Almeida, as part of an in-depth remodelling of the Cathedral of Coimbra. Their application over large surfaces, blending in with the architecture, had a decisive influence on the future of this art in Portugal.

The mid-16th century saw a change in taste when smooth faience tiles began to replace relief tiles. The first ‘azulejos’ painted by Portuguese artists appeared alongside the most simple chequered compositions of alternating white and coloured tiles, generally blue or green ( fig. 15 ).

These new panels were usually of an erudite nature with compositions of grotesques and wrought-iron motifs ( fig. 14 ), typical of the Italo-Flemish Mannerist style.

In the Late Middle Ages the most common ceramics, the so-called earthenware pottery, mainly for kitchen use, differed little from that previously produced. However, the tableware, primarily drinking vessels, showed a certain originality ( fig. 8 ).

At the same time, there was a rediscovery of glazes based on lead oxide which represented a very important technical advance in the history of ceramics. This ‘glazed ceramic’ was common in Europe until the end of the Middle Ages when faience appeared – with its opaque white, tin glaze – revolutionizing the ceramics industry by offering new decorative possibilities.

Faience achieved its first peak between the 13th and 14th centuries in Málaga and Manises, with the appearance of decorated ceramics with a metallic lustre effect ( fig. 10 ).

At first, the decorations display an Islamic influence with ‘cufic’ characters and arabesques. After the Reconquest however, these decorations were replaced by others in which Gothic characters and Christian symbols stood out from plant motifs. Due to the influence of the Hispano-Moorish faience, ceramics acquired a certain prestige for the first time in Europe, beginning to appear decorating the tables of the nobility.

The Italian taste for the lustreware imported from Spain would mean that, at a later date, this finish would be applied to Italian Renaissance ceramics that became known as ‘majolicas’.

The desire for ‘majolicas’ caused a surge of migration of potters to the North. It is known that at the beginning of the 16th century they had established themselves in Antwerp. The Italian style ( fig. 11 ) spread from there, lasting until the beginning of the following century. It was at this time that the Portuguese broke with tradition by applying Chinese porcelain decorations to faience, thus beginning the ‘blue and white’ fashion which has continued until the present.

It is not known exactly when faience began in Portugal, however it is known that tin-glazed ceramics were already being made in Lisbon by the mid-1500s ( figs. 12 and 13 ).

The fact that Italian disciples who had settled in Antwerp, established themselves in Lisbon is fundamental as it definitively implanted the faience technique here thus introducing a new form of plastic expression: Flemish Mannerism, which would influence other Portuguese decorative art-forms, such as tiles, gilt and polychromatic woodcarving and ornamental ceiling painting.

17th Century

Tiled wall-paneling of chequered compositions continued to be used until around 1630. From then on the compositions of polychrome patterns (figs. 16 , 17 and  18 ), which were easier to apply and more popular during this period, were conclusively adopted.

Tapestry-like compositions – that became symbolic of the Portuguese ‘azulejos’ and which other countries employed only in frescos, marble or stained glass – owe their name to the fact that they suggest several juxtaposed tapestries.

The first designs evoke models from Seville and Talavera, with decorations of garlands, diamond point and stylized acanthus flowers, known in Portugal as ‘parras’ (vine leaves).

The Italo-Flemish Mannerist schemes are recognizable by their orange hues, garlands and ‘wrought-iron patterns’. This pattern, ( fig. 19 ) believed to be the first one to be mass-produced in Portugal, being the basis for a range of variations in use during the first half of the 17th century.

After 1630, an Oriental influence appears with new ornamental themes inspired by carpets and Indian wood-block-printed textiles. During the last part of the 17th century some of these patterns adopt a blue colour, whilst others appear decorated with Baroque foliage, scrolls and ‘fleurons’, inspired by the traditional ceiling painting.

Borders, some of which were specific to certain compositions, framed these ‘tapestries’. They were ornamented with geometric, figurative and plant motifs.

The figurative panels, which had achieved their height at the end of the 16th century with Renaissance compositions, were gradually replaced by patterned ‘azulejos’, used only inside churches as part of the ‘tapestries’, but with their own borders. Apart from the emblematic panels depicting religious symbols or the emblems of religious bodies and noble families, the very naïve hagiographic panels, inspired by erudite Mannerist engravings, are of particular significance.

In the third quarter of the 17th century, these panels began to be grouped in sets forming narrative series.

Meanwhile, in 1667, following the end of the war with Spain, many palaces were being built or remodelled. This was when the ‘azulejo’ definitively penetrated the private sphere to satisfy the sumptuous needs of a nobility with weakened finances.

Not only were religious themes replaced by hunting scenes, ‘singeries’ or mythological and allegorical motives, but another fundamental change was taking place. With ever diminishing spaces available the panels are applied as wainscots, signaling the decline of the large ‘tapestry’ revetments, and the rise of narrated compositions, which would become the glory of the 18th century.

Tiled altar frontals ( fig. 20 ) replaced the original cloth ones, declared inadvisable by the Council of Seville in 1509.

From the mid-17th century, brocade imitations and grotesque decoration of wild life gave way to themes of ‘birds and foliage’, reflecting the taste of Portuguese society for orientalized decoration. The central area of these frontals was decorated with Indo-Persian inspired exotic motifs, whilst the valence and orphreys present Renaissance motifs inspired by European embroidered textiles.

During the first part of the 17th century the taste for the earlier Renaissance compositions generated the development of the ‘grotesques’ – imaginative representations of wildlife, created by modest, uneducated craftsmen who adulterated the images which had inspired them. These expensive panels were applied in well-defined areas in the most dignified parts of churches, or, from 1670, in the new palaces. Their highly coloured compositions with large foliage represent the first manifestations of the Baroque taste in ‘azulejos’.

Another characteristic motif of the late 1600s is the ‘albarrada’. It corresponds to the vases filled with flowers in the ‘grotesque’ compositions, though deprived of the borders which individualized them. The ‘albarradas’ wainscots have been applied frequently to the less noble spaces in convents and palaces, initially as polychrome tiles and later, in blue and white – a fashion that continued into the mid-18th century.

In contrast to the ‘azulejos’, that evolved in polychrome form reflecting their Italo-Flemish roots, 17th century faience was characterized by its blue and white decoration, inspired by contemporary Chinese porcelain ( fig. 21 ).

In 1582, the king, D. Filipe I of Portugal, in a letter to his daughters, referred to the shipment of ‘the new style porcelain’, which was none other than Lisbon faience with an Oriental decoration. In 1620, Nicolau de Oliveira registered an abundant 28 faience kilns, 76 painters and 46 designers, revealing the importance of this art.

J. Baart explains that this was due to the new habit of eating from individual plates and the growing use of faience tableware as, during the 16th century, majolicas were to replace the metallic vessels.

After 1610, merchants introduced orientalized faience into international commerce, to compete with Italy in this niche of the market. Materials found in excavations of the Portuguese-Jewish quarter in Amsterdam and from around Europe in general as well as from the old Portuguese and Spanish colonies, confirm Severim de Faria’s statement that: «the kingdom is full of this pottery, but a lot of it is leaving Lisbon by sea».
When the importation of Chinese porcelain was suddenly suspended in 1657, Dutch faience improved remarkably and the technically superior Delftware would replace the position previously held by the Portuguese production.

This shrinking market helps to explain why faience fell into decadence at the end of the 17th century, in sharp contrast to the brilliance attained by ‘azulejos’.

The technically more modest Portuguese faience was important due to its original decoration inspired by Chinese porcelain and not direct copies, as were the Delft ceramics.

Recently J. Baart has divided 17th century faience into three groups based on archaeological findings in Amsterdam: 1600-1625: decorations inspired by Italian majolicas, Spanish faience, Portuguese traditional ceramics and on a lesser scale, Chinese porcelain.

1625-1650: imitations of porcelain made expressly for export during the reign of the Emperor Wanli, the decorations consisting of curvilinear geometric shapes of Islamic influence.

1650-1675: decoration depicting Chinese figures in landscapes, outlined in manganese, or the so-called ‘desenhos miúdos’ in Portugal ( fig. 23 ), inspired by the Transition Period (1620–1683) in porcelain. However, Reynaldo dos Santos’ earlier and more detailed classification applies to production from the second half of the 17th century.

Faience from the third-quarter of the century is known as ‘aranhões’ (scrawl) ( fig. 24 ) due to its decoration based on loosely copied Chinese symbols. In the last quarter of the century, the Chinese themes disappear and faience styles are known as: ‘três contas’ (three beads), ‘caracois barrocos’ (Baroque curls) and ‘rendas’ (lacework) ( fig. 27 ).

18th – 20th century

In the 18th century the ‘azulejo’ played a key role in defining the Portuguese Baroque. The taste for blue and white panels representing memorable events, which were to decorate most of the churches and palaces built or renovated during the reign of the king, D. João V, is then perfectly consolidated.

The Dutch tiles ( fig. 29 ) fulfilled very specific orders and were adapted to the Portuguese taste. They were important in introducing erudite themes to ‘azulejos’ and for their extremely refined painting. Manufacturers were amazed by the quality of the painting of these ‘azulejos’ and sought out more educated painters, Gabriel del Barco becoming the first.

The popularity of these panels provoked an uncontrollable demand originating in the ‘great production’ of 1725–1750, which coincided with the second half of the reign of D. João V. ( fig. 31 ). Production became stereotyped and figurative aspects grew progressively simpler, in contrast, to the borders, which gained importance and attained enormous character.

The so-called ‘didactic azulejos’ ( fig. 30 ), from the Colégio de Santo Antão in Lisbon, or the Colégio das Artes in Coimbra, portrayed subjects connected with astronomy, such as the Ptolemaic System, as well as some propositions and definitions illustrated in the Jesuit A. Tacquet’s ‘Euclid’s Elements’, first published in 1654.

The panels in the old Colégio do Espírito Santo in Évora, represented and explained subjects taught in the classroom thus reinforcing the importance that the Jesuits attributed to images to complement the dry texts of their manuals.

At the end of the 17th century, Coimbra became a very important manufacturing centre. The partnership between Manuel da Silva and Agostinho de Paiva is of particular significance. They painted a few narrative series between 1720 and 1724, such as those found in the old Cathedral in Coimbra. However, their most significant works, which became one of the city’s specialties, are the ‘albarrada’ wainscots and ‘azulejos’ of individual figures which decorated the University and most of the region’s colleges and convents.

The work of Manuel da Costa Brioso and Salvador de Sousa at their ‘new factory of glazed roof-tiles’ installed in 1773, was particularly relevant to the evolution of the ‘azulejos’ of Coimbra during the last quarter of the 18th century.

This factory probably produced the panels illustrating the sections and elevations of the new buildings designed by Eldsen, which the Bishop-Count D. Francisco de Lemos had applied to one of the rooms in the Episcopal Palace. As he was also Dean of the University, the Bishop aimed to immortalize his role as a Reformer in developing and implementing the new University Statutes ( fig. 32 ).

Following the brilliance attained by faience in the 17th century and, in contrast to the ‘azulejos’, faience of the first half of the 18th century falls into decadence due to the politico-economic situation of the time, as can be seen in the pottery produced for convents ( fig. 33 ). The protectionist policy of the Marquis of Pombal played a significant part in a change in direction which took place during the last third of the century. According to Joaquim de Vasconcelos, during the final decades of the 18th century there were approximately 25 working faience factories spread throughout the country.

In contrast to the preceding century, 18th century production reflected international taste, noticeably evident in the neoclassical type faience produced after 1790.

The Real Fábrica de Louça, also known as the Fábrica do Rato due to its location in Lisbon, was founded in 1767 and remained active until 1835 ( figs. 34 and 35 ). It had a decisive influence on production at the time in the context of a wider policy of promoting national industry.

In 1796, the Bica do Sapato factory, whose production was artistically very close to that of Estremoz (1770), was the last factory to be founded in a burst of industrialization during the last quarter of the 18th century. The Juncal factory, founded in 1770, was another peripheral manufacturer.

A group of men who benefited from the protectionist policies in effect at the time were involved in founding and developing the ceramics industry in the Porto region. In 1764 the centres of Massarelos, Miragaia, Santo António do Vale da Piedade and Cavaquinho saw the emergence of one of the largest and most enduring industrial complexes of the time.

The Viana do Castelo region was another relatively important manufacturing centre.

There are references to the production of faience in Coimbra at the very beginning of the 17th century; however, there are no known objects that can safely be said to have come from this traditional ceramics region at that early date.

Meanwhile, Coimbra ceramics underwent unparalleled development in the 18th century which is usually divided into the following groups: pre-Brioso; Brioso–1st period; Brioso–2nd period and Vandelli.

In 1784, in the Rossio de Santa Clara, Domingos Vandelli began a line of production which was considered to be the finest faience in the country, competing with the Fábrica do Rato.

The production known as ‘louça ratinha’ was named after the labourers from the province of Beira who were its enthusiastic consumers and who travelled seasonally to the Ribatejo and the Alentejo regions. As they were poor and had to search for food and money in those regions the local people called them ‘little mice’ (ratinhos).

Curiously, the earliest plates of this production have unequivocal similarities with Persian decorative motives, a coincidence for which there is still no explanation.

As this pottery was destined for the poorer consumer, it has sponged decoration and a weak tin glaze, in contrast to the technically superior Vandelli pottery.