The Azulejo Heritage

While north of Portugal they painted on canvas, we painted on tile.

The Portuguese Azulejo

Although many assume the word Azulejo derives from azul (Portuguese for “blue”), the word is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates to “polished stone.” Used since before the 16th century, King Manuel I was impressed by the decorative potential of Hispano-Moresque tiles and placed large orders with workshops for his Royal Palace in Sintra. Azulejo tiles were subsequently used to decorate walls and vaults in churches, monasteries and places of nobility.

​In 1640, Portugal revolted against the Spanish, starting a war that lasted until 1668 during which a new style was introduced, characterized by figures contoured with a very dark manganese based colour in cartoon-like manner. After the end of the war, wealthy customers decided that the local production lacked sophistication and started ordering more professionally painted panels from Holland. These came in the blue and white style inspired by Ming porcelain which was trendy at the time. To be able to compete, Portuguese Azulejo makers resorted to known painters to decorate their local produced panels also in blue over a white majolica ground. This step marked the beginning of the so-called Age of Masters which left us magnificent and valuable panels of local production. The period lasted until about 1725.

In 1755 a strong earthquake destroyed a sizeable part of Lisbon. The entire City Centre was designed on modern urban conceptions and the walls and kitchens of the new multi-storey buildings were often finished with simple-patterned Azulejo art, limited by a linear frame (the so-called pombalino style). New patterned designs evolved during the late 18th century (called Dona Maria style, from the name of Queen Mary I of Portugal).

​After the 1840s, Azulejos had a revival as a convenient and almost maintenance-free façade covering first in the pombalino style, and then with new and colorful designs which continued well into the 20th century, after the advent of modern industrial production.

The Cobalt Blue Colour

Cobalt blue is a pigment that includes the active ingredient cobalt oxide, that when applied to a raw glaze in proper proportion and then fired, creates a deep blue colour commonly known as, cobalt blue.

Cobalt is a metal that can be found in limited quantities in the Earth’s crust. It cannot be found in pure elemental form.. Only a chemical characterization can help to pinpoint the origin of each different type of cobalt-bearing pigment.

The principal sources of cobalt known in the past were in: Qamsar (present-day Iran), in Europe Saxony and Bohemia (present-day Germany and Czech Republic), China and present-day Sumatra, Spain, Norway and Morocco.

When we survey the European ceramics within the 16th – 19th centuries, we perceive the prevalence of blue colours. Faience and porcelain decorations are dominated by blue colours. Blue decorations required the discovery of suitable pigments and their local availability or procurement through trade routes. Historically, the mining of cobalt ore began in Europe in 1500, in close connection with the silver and bismuth mining in the High Saxon-Bohemian Erzgebirge. At this point begins the proliferation of ever-increasing use of cobalt in the central and northern European pottery and glassworks. In Spain, Portugal, and Italy the appearance of the colour occurred about a century earlier when it was imported by sea from far away countries throughout the Western Mediterranean. The color seemed to be borrowed and exchanged from areas in which cobalt ores existed.