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.
Our Lady of Life panel.
Detail from the panel.
Detail from the panel.
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.
The church altar.
The ceiling of the chancel.
The barrel vault. I love barrel vaults, partly because it’s an architectural term I understand!
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!
Click (or double-click, depending on your device) on any image to launch the slideshow.
Detail from the St. Bento stairs, in which the tiles were cut to follow the slope of a staircase.
One of seven panels illustrating the true story of a hat maker.
I spent a day in Belém because one thing led to another: the Monastery of Jerónimos was high on my list of places to visit in Lisbon, then I saw that the Tower of Belém was part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site, then I noticed that the Museu da Marinha was in the same area and I like maritime museums.
Thanks to clear directions and a map from the hotel receptionist, I found my way to the stop for the bus to Belém. Once at the monastery, I bought my ticket for the monastery and tower and thanks to a suggestion from a TripAdvisor reviewer, headed for the tower first. Despite arthritic knees, I enjoy climbing towers and the view from up high. Standing in line to enter the tower, water was splashing over the walkway, which explained why there was a space in the line! That reminded me that Nuno had told me the day before that the Tagus River is saltwater and tidal at this point.
The tower was built around 1514 as part of the defense system of the port of Lisbon. Starting in 1589, it was successively used as a prison, a customs post, a telegraph station, and a lighthouse. A curious feature is a corbel in the shape of a rhinoceros head. This carving was inspired by the arrival in Lisbon of a rhinoceros from India in 1513. It was given by King Manuel I to Pope Leo X the next year, but sadly, the rhinoceros drowned when the ship carrying it sank.
Click (or double-click, depending on your device) on any image to launch the slideshows.
Torre de Belém.
After lunch, I headed to the Museu da Marinha. Walking through an area that was a mix of residential, commercial, and apparently abandoned buildings, I passed an alleyway. Ten seconds later, I decided to backtrack and take a picture and lucked out – a horse and carriage passed just then and were framed by the opening!
The Museu da Marinha was a mixed bag. The first section included exhibits and signage that were interesting and informative, without being overwhelming. For example, the sign board for a selection of maps pointed out that cartography provided practical information for navigation and that charts and maps were also illustrated with the new types of plants and animals and the different people being encountered by Europeans. Another exhibit of model ships explained that these were used for training purposes and listed the details of the actions illustrated by the model (most of which I didn’t understand, but I appreciated the concept). A couple of highlights for me were noticing that the frame of a painting of Henry the Navigator was made to resemble rope and learning a new phrase – armillary sphere.
The next part of the museum was filled with displays centered on the navy, merchant marine, and fishing. These were mostly models and I wished for more context and easier-to-read signage. A section I liked contained two rooms preserved from the royal yacht Amelia; I could definitely see myself being quite comfortable in one of these rooms! In an area across a courtyard was a huge space filled with royal barges and traditional fishing boats. The prows of both barges and boats were decorated, albeit in quite different styles.
Decoration of a more humble boat!
A cheerful decoration.
I wrapped up my day by visiting the monastery. I can only describe the Manueline style as exuberantly magnificent. My neck hurt from looking up, trying to note every detail of the columns and ceilings. I understood why people were taking pictures – so was I – but I cannot think it proper to take selfies in front of an altar. As with my walking tour the day before, I was introduced to a person of whom I had never heard – Alexandre Herculano – via an exhibition on his life and contributions. Another exhibition consisted of a timeline of 500 years of the monastery, Portugal, and the world. I chuckled internally when I saw a notation about the synthesis of aspirin, since I’d stopped at a pharmacy the evening before to buy some, anticipating sore muscles after walking so much.
The cloister; note the cross-cut corners.
A rose window.
The ceiling of the choir loft.
Detail of a column.
Decorative tile in the refectory; note the stone ‘rope.’
In a triumph of figuring out something, I found the stop for the bus back to my hotel. And thank goodness, another pastry crossed my path that evening!
Visiting Lisbon, I did something different – I booked a guided walking tour of the city for my first morning there. It turned out to be a good move, not only because I got an overview of the city, but because my guide was so knowledgeable and entertaining.
The tour filled my head with new names, history, and tidbits of information, including:
Luís de Camões, considered the greatest poet of the Portuguese language. His most famous work is the epic Os Lusíadas.
Fernando Pessoa, a 20th century writer whose statue is in front of Cafe A Brasilia. Having seen the statue, I noticed stylized representations of him numerous places.
The devastating 1755 earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed most of the city. Under the leadership of the Marquis of Pombal, the rebuilding of the city was planned and executed; it included the world’s first buildings designed to withstand earthquakes. Interestingly, part of the plan was that churches would not face main squares – they were either at least one block off a main square or the front doors did not face the square – in order to de-emphasize their place in the city and culture.
The Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, which overthrew the dictatorship in power and was the beginning of the end of Portuguese colonialism.
How to avoid the fee for the Santa Justa Elevador and still enjoy the great view!
The tiled buildings are picturesque, but when the entire building is covered in tiles, there’s no way for moisture to pass through, to the detriment of the walls’ stability. In places, tiles are falling from the buildings and ‘nets’ are in place to catch the tiles and protect pedestrians.
The story behind the city coat of arms, which I loved and took pictures of in all kinds of places. In the coat of arms, the ship is carrying the bones of the city’s patron saint, St. Vincent, escorted by the crows, who prevented animals and birds from scavenging the saint’s body.
The fish for the iconic bacalhau – dried, salted cod – does not come from the waters around Portugal; cod is a cold water fish. I should have realized this after all my years in New England.
St. Anthony of Padua, as he is known in the Christian world, was born in Lisbon. Igreja de Santo António is a church built on the site where, according to tradition, he was born. The inside of the cupola is lovely.
By the end of the tour, my head was swirling and I was reminded once again of how much there is to read and learn about, which is reassuring because I’d hate to be bored.
After lunch, I visited the Museu do Fado. The audio guide was helpful in explaining the origins and development of fado and included song excerpts. I put on my list for next time going to a place where I could hear the music live.
After walking nine miles and up and down hills, my after-dinner pastry was completely justified!
My thanks to Nuno of Lisbon Spirit for the wonderful Introduction to Lisbon tour.