Portugal’s Azulejo Detectives
A small, quiet army of historians, scientists, and restoration experts are reassembling pieces of Portugal’s past, one gorgeous tile at a time.
Story and Photography by CASEY O’BRIEN
The panel in front of me is longer than the length of my living room; even the most creative iPhone camera angle can’t capture it all. Alone in this room, it creates no need for any other exhibit or decoration. The blue and white tiles are sharp against a wall painted blood-red, and the drawings on them are rendered in exquisite, intricate detail.
When I walk into this gallery—which I nearly missed, tucked as it is into the corner of the Museu Nacional de Azulejo in Lisbon, Portugal—only a handful of other visitors mill through the room. It’s late in a muggy afternoon, and the room soon empties, leaving me alone with my camera and this regal piece of art, which depicts the city of Lisbon in the 1800s.
The hundreds of individually painted tiles that compose this long tableau give a rare glimpse into the city’s history. Like the pixels of a photograph, the tiles are indecipherable individually. But when hundreds of them come together, they compose doors and arches, sloping roofs, waves crashing along the port’s rocky beach. To create the full, impressive image, you need every tile perfectly in place, a Herculean task when considering the tiles’ advanced age, their delicacy, and the many hands they’ve passed through.
Since 1980, a small but growing group of Portuguese have made it their mission to find, and repair when necessary, as many of the country’s iconic tiles, called azulejos, that they can.
The Museu Nacional du Azulejo, a stone monolith in a quiet neighborhood a little outside downtown Lisbon, looks more like a palace than a museum. (Before it was a museum it was a convent, and then a trade school.) The facility houses some of the largest collections of the city’s azulejos, which have become, especially recently, emblematic of this small Iberian nation. On Mondays, when no visitors are allowed, members of the museum’s restorations team take over the building, spreading out their tools to painstakingly refurbish tiles that range from a few decades to hundreds of years old.
In April, 2019, when I first visit the Museu, Alexandre Pais, a historian who is one of the two heads of the restoration project, unlocks the museum’s tall, wrought iron gate and guides me past the shuttered ticket counter to a quiet, verdant courtyard garden. There, surrounded by creeping vines and a bubbling fountain, he begins telling me the azulejos story.
Pais, a neatly dressed man with dark hair and olive skin, is soft-spoken but confident; his English is formal and perfectly correct. Azulejos, he explains, are unique to Portugal, and they cover the surfaces of a great many buildings in Lisbon, giving the city a whimsical look that would fit in with a Dr. Seuss story. The love affair between Portugal and tile art has been going on a long time, dating as far back as the 13th century when the Moors first brought tiles to the Iberian Peninsula. The term “azulejo”, which is used only to refer to Portuguese and Spanish tile, actually derives from the Arabic word for “polished stone.” Azulejos became especially popular in Portugal in the 16th century; since then they have become icons of the country’s culture.
“Azulejo,” Pais says, “is something different from tile.” While Portuguese tiles appear in a rainbow of shades, traditional azulejos show a limited color palette—mainly blue, white and yellow. Their intricate designs vary from simple geometric patterns to complex tableaus that depict the lives and culture of the Portuguese people. Like the giant portrait of Lisbon that enchanted me on my first visit to the museum, azulejos typically take up whole walls and depict extensive stories, portraits, and landscapes in painstaking detail. Pais and his partner on the project, Lurdes Esteves, have made it their life’s work to reconstruct these panels one painstaking tile at a time. It is remarkably slow work.
After our discussion in the garden, Pais tours me through the restorers’ work area. Behind a flimsy screen and a sign in Portuguese and English asking patrons of the museum to keep out, we step into so narrow it’s almost a hallway. Everywhere—on the floor, along the walls nearly to the ceiling, on long wooden tables lined with tools—are boxes of tiles. There are tiles from Lisbon and tiles from Porto, tiles with patterns and tiles with illustrations, tiles stamped with the name of the factory they came from, and tiles whose origin is still a mystery. Pais’ labors resemble detective work more than historical research, at least the way scholars practice it. He spends his days poring through photographs, primary sources such as receipts and letters, illustrations, and various books to find any evidence of tiles that look similar to those currently stockpiled in the museum.
I am awed by the collection’s sheer volume—it’s a ceramic treasure trove fit for Indiana Jones. Pais says there are about 60,000 tiles in the museum’s inventory—and that’s only so far. Almost every week, he explains, more arrive. Tiles are regularly donated by the boxful from private citizens, businesses, and anyone else who discovers them, typically during restorations and remodels. Pais tries to take them all, although there is no room left. “I don’t know what could be important. Probably these donations, they don’t have anything unique or interesting to our history. But some, they might. One hundred years from now, we may want these tiles. So, I take them,” he says, gesturing to a new arrival in the corner.
“How long,” I ask, “would it take you to restore them all and find out where they came from if you didn’t take any more starting today?” Pais looks pained. “Years,” he replies, “Five at least. But I do, I take more all the time. It just grows and grows.”
When tiles arrive, team members start by laying them out like a massive, extremely delicate, antique puzzle, but without any picture on a cardboard box to guide them. “The first thing I try to do, usually, is the subject,” Pais says. “We try to determine if they came from churches or palaces, and what church or palace. Sometimes it’s not easy. Our success margin is about forty percent, which is quite good.”
As he pokes along, Pais looks for clues—objects like books or fine clothes that point to holiness or nobility, recognizable faces of saints, distinctive landscapes. After compiling all their evidence, the team begins, slowly, to find how their clues connect. “This is a really interesting project,” he says. “We have chemists, physicists, engineers and geologists. It’s a very wide group of people.”
Lurdes Esteve, Pais’ partner on the azulejo project, worked in ceramics before entering conservation, a background that allows her to use the science of clay in her work. “This is different from people who only have degrees in restoration conservation,” Pais says. “They don’t have the complete knowledge of the behavior of the ceramics.”
At the time of my visit, Esteves was developing a new restoration technique that could keep azulejos close to their original look and style. Traditionally, tiles have been restored using gypsum, a compound made of calcium sulfate that is common in plaster and blackboards. Instead of synthetic materials, Esteves uses raw clay. She creates the missing pieces of ceramic on tiles that have been broken, then paints them in the style of whatever era they were created in—whether that’s the 16th century or the 20th. Esteves fires her replacement ceramic to match the original, then places it onto the damaged azulejo and adjusts it to fit.
In the course of her work Esteves plays many parts, stepping into the feet of the artists who came before her and trying, as unobtrusively as possible, to fill in what time has taken away. It isn’t perfect, but it comes pretty close. Someone looking very, very closely might be able to see where the original art ends and Esteves’ work began, but she aims for such an accurate replication that blends become invisible.
As with other fine, handmade objects, Esteves’ restorations are expensive, time consuming, and slow, but Pais finds the results far more accurate than other restorations. Mastery of this craft apparently takes years. As evidence of the dedication it takes, on the day I visit, one team member, dressed in a lab coat and gloves that look like they belong in forensics rather than art, is intently staring at a tile under a microscope. As we talk, she briefly smiles at me, and agrees to have her photo taken, but she makes it clear she has no time to chat.
Because tile restoration requires such specific skills, and such long hours of labor, few people know how to do it. Nonetheless, Pais and Esteves, along with other restoration experts, are working to pass on their knowledge to Portuguese young people who can carry the art of tile preservation forward. In their eyes, the work is crucial to Portuguese heritage.
The Museu usually gets about twenty interns every year, 80% of whom go on to enter the art industry. “We are inoculating a sort of virus of love for azulejos in these children and we do really hope that the next generation will take better care of them,” says Leonor Sa, head of the SOS Azulejo Project, founded partly to protect the tiles from theft (an ongoing problem). “And if you see what they do, they are sometimes really inspiring.”
In recent years, the museum’s demand for internships has actually risen. “Many say it’s valuable to them. Because the problem with Portuguese universities is, the knowledge is very theoretical, so this is an opportunity to have a more direct contact with the object,” Pais says.
Azulejos have not always been appreciated in Portugal. Back in the 1990s, the country suffered from a severe drug crisis, which left it without resources for luxuries like art curation and restoration. As Craftsmanship Magazine covered in its 2019 article, “Portugal’s Path to Breaking Drug Addiction,” the country dove headfirst into innovative rehabilitation programs to help its addicts get back on their feet. Despite Portugal’s success, the crawl back to stability was plenty challenging, and those darker days still cast shadows over the country. Portugal remains one of the most unequal countries in Europe, with the highest salaries more than five times the lowest, and hourly wages half the Eurozone average.
But Portugal—which is also known for its beautiful beaches, charming cities, warm weather, and delicious food—has recently entered a renaissance, rising in popularity as a tourist destination. [See sidebar article on Portugal’s unusual tourist attractions, which may re-open to tourists in June.] The country drew more than 12 million tourists in 2017, a record that has helped reduce the country’s unemployment and usher in an era of relative prosperity (despite the challenges increased tourism bring). Alongside the country’s economic growth, a flourishing arts scene includes not only a devotion to preserving existing azulejos, but a new cohort of azulejo artists that are reinventing the artform (the Museu also has a section devoted to new azulejo pieces). “We have now a new generation and azulejo production is changing,” Pais says. “We have people creating new concepts.”
From all indications, azulejos are finally reclaiming their space in Portuguese culture. Restoration work may be slow, challenging, and exhausting, but sometimes, with enough clues, and enough luck, restorers can put yesterday’s pictures, and cultural identity, back together again.