A month or so ago I discovered a wonderful blog on Portuguese tiles (https://portuguesetiles.home.blog/) and wrote a short post about it.
I found the blog site so interesting I connected with the author, Celso Mangucci, to ask him a few questions about the history of Portuguese tiles, how Portuguese tile production became such a large industry, and the origin of his interest in the subject.
JW: Can you give me a little information about your background? Do you work as a historian?
CM: I was born in Brazil, in São Paulo, where I graduated in Anthropology. I have lived in Portugal for some years now. In fact, more than 30 years. Here, I completed a course on ceramic tile conservation and restoration. After more than a decade working at the Museum of Évora (nowadays National Museum Frei Manuel do Cenáculo), I am concluding my Ph.D. in Art History with a grant from the Foundation for Science and Technology. The tiles ordered for the Jesuit Colleges are the principal theme of the dissertation.
JW: How did you get interested in Portuguese tiles?
CM: After finishing college, I did a short internship in conservation and restoration in Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil. I was told they already had technicians trained in oil painting restoration, but few in the area of ceramic tiles. It was wise counsel and the beginning of a master plan to come to Portugal to learn a little more about tiles.
JW: Are you most interested in the historical references in Portuguese tiles, or their artistic merit – or something else?
CM: The Portuguese Tiles blog has a clear objective, which is to reconstruct the cultural context that justified the choice of a theme for a set of tiles.
Without this context, it is impossible to understand, for example, the representation of a black slave woman in the kitchen of a Lisbon palace, or the equestrian portrait of a nobleman in the gardens of a villa. In most cases, it is not a story told on a single tile panel, but on a relatively large set of panels. Its creation involved the collaboration of iconographers, architects, tilers, painters, and potters.
The identification of the owners and the type of the building allows us to understand, with some clarity, what are the objectives of the decorative project.
JW: When my wife and I visited Portugal, we saw many historic buildings decorated with tiles. When and where did this start?
CM: Perhaps, the best would be to think about several beginnings. Between the end of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century, the Portuguese aristocracy imported large quantities of tiles manufactured in the city of Seville. In this period, there was no tile production in Lisbon, or it was incipient. More than a hundred years later, at the end of the 17th century, the Portuguese state banned the import of Dutch tiles, and with the collaboration between learned painters and master potters, a production of blue and white figurative tiles was created. What is important to note is that the import of tiles is as relevant as national production.
Much more than technical innovation changed in this time period between the order of Sevillian tiles for a royal palace in the late 15th century and the full-scale production of blue and white tiles in Lisbon a hundred years later. Technological changes in manufacturing correspond to different requests from patrons. In addition to technical innovation, there was an evolution of the cultural environment. There are many ways we can use tiles to cover the walls of a building. Ceramic tile is a versatile, insulating, beautiful, and long-lasting material. But what also matters is the relationship with architecture, with the visual arts, and with all other forms of knowledge. Really, the history of Portuguese ceramic tiles must be told as the production of a cultural object and not as technological evolution.
JW: Why was tile so widely used in architectural decoration in Portugal? Was there a particular reason?
CM: Yes, tile was intensely used to decorate the interiors of palaces, gardens, churches, classrooms, and convent dormitories. The painters were inspired by French, Italian, and Dutch prints, and followed the ideas of chronicles, emblem books, hagiographies, portraits, hunting, and gallant scenes. If we look closely, certain characteristics remained constant and unchanged: the ceramic body, the glaze brightness, the durable material resistance…
JW: Was tile widely used in Portuguese colonial architecture (e.g., Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, etc.)?
CM: There are relevant sets of Portuguese tiles in the Azores, Madeira, and Brazil, and some remains of their use in Angola and Macau. There was no local tile production in none of these regions, and it was “natural” that they used Portuguese material and techniques for the most important buildings.
JW: I have read that tiles have been stolen from churches and other buildings due to the commercial value of the old tiles. Is this still going on?
CM: In addition to this deep-rooted problem, it is even more worrying the need to make a great effort to conserve a large number of sets associated with buildings that have lost their original functions. Ceramic tiles essentially depend on the relationship with the original buildings. Urban transformations are always a threat to the loss of this primordial nexus. We can see beautiful tiles in Portuguese museums, but nothing that compares to a delightful visit to a garden or the dramatic atmosphere of a church.
JW: I also understand that some towns are creating “banks” of tiles so that property owners can either use historic tiles to redecorate their property or use these historic tiles as guides to modern tile replicas.
CM: Yes, there are projects of this type in Porto and Lisbon, but transferring tiles from one building to another is not the best policy for preserving the architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries.
JW: Is tile coming back as a decorative element in Portuguese architecture?
CM: Historians and architects of the twentieth century were primarily responsible for the elevation of tiles as an identity characteristic of Portuguese-Brazilian architecture.
In fact, the movement begins in Brazil, with the emblematic work of architect Oscar Niemayer for the Pampulha church, built in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in 1940-1943.
Nowadays, with healthy freedom, tile constitutes a material with enormous potential, and just to mention a few examples, it was used in a very creative way in the Lisbon Metro stations…
…and in some works by the architect Siza Vieira: