What an absolutely fabulous visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon – truly one of the best times I’ve spent in a museum!
I looked forward to visiting this museum, also known as the National Tile Museum, because I knew that Portugal was famed for its tiles, but it was even better than I expected, thanks to its well-captioned exhibits, the displays designed to be touched, and the excellent app that included both audio and text descriptions.
Azulejo is the Portuguese word for tile and the audio guide explained that the word came from the Arabic ‘al-zulaich,’ which means ‘polished stone.’ I learned about the various ways of making azulejo: the alicatado technique, in which painted and fired clay sheets were scored in a pattern and individual pieces broken off; the corda seca (dry cord) technique in which the pattern was pressed into the soft clay, forming grooves that acted as barriers between the different colors during the firing; the aresta (ridge) technique in which the motif was stamped onto the soft clay, with the lines of the design forming ridges that provided the same separation of colors as in the dry cord technique; and the imprint technique, in which the motif stood out from the surface of the tile, rather than the outline standing out as in the ridge technique.
In the section on tile making in the first part of the 16th century, I learned that Muslims on the Iberian peninsula used wall and floor azulejos that imitated large tapestries. The audio guide pointed out that tile’s ability to reflect light had a great impact in the days when buildings were illuminated by candlelight.
Another exhibit connected to Italy – it discussed the faience technique from the Italian city Faenza. This technique, developed in mid-16th century, allowed for a greater range of color tones and potters were able to produce tiles that resembled paintings. A magnificent example of this technique is the Our Lady of Life panel. It consists of 1,498 faience tiles and imitates a retable (another word I learned on this trip; it means a decorative structure placed on or above and behind an altar). The audio guide told me that this is considered one of Portugal’s azulejo masterpieces because of the complexity of its design and color scheme and I can see why.
I had to go looking for it because it had been moved into a special exhibit area, but a favorite panel was the registo panel of Our Lady of Carmo. Registos are azulejo panels that were placed on building facades after the 1755 earthquake as protection from further catastrophes. They depicted the Virgin Mary or saints, particularly St. Marçal, who offered protection against fires. This panel was made in Coimbra and the colors are different from azulejo made in Lisbon: the blues are more grey in tone and the yellows more orange.
The museum is housed in a former convent, the Convento de Madre de Deus, which was a convent for the cloistered Order of Saint Clare. One of the interesting factoids I learned when visiting the church was that the amount of gold used for the gilded carved frames of the paintings that cover the ceiling and part of the walls was that of six gold coins. With all the glitter, one would not expect that, but the layer of gold is very thin.
By the time I left the museum, I had told a guard, the man in the gift shop, and the two people at the front desk how much I enjoyed my visit and how great the audio guide was. If you’re ever in Lisbon, go to this museum!
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