Vibrant Tiles From Portugal

Vibrant Tiles From Portugal

LISBON'S ancient Moorish Alfama district is where hanging laundry billows across the narrow labyrinth of cobble serpentine alleys, archways and enchanting little squares. No visitor can help but be dazzled by the profusion of decorative wrought-iron balconies and panels of azulejos, the traditional hand-painted tiles of Portugal. Outside the capital tile-decorated facades are ubiquitous. But, beyond their decorative aspects, azulejos reflect the history of this once-powerful nation.

In 1415 the Portuguese captured Ceuta, in what is today Morocco, ending barbarian rule and assuring their control of the Strait of Gibraltar. It was there that they discovered the beauty of Moorish tiles, which were introduced to the area around the 13th century.

The first dated azulejos were believed to have been made in Portugal in 1565. They can still be seen just south of Lisbon at the Quinta da Balcalhoa, which was built in the mid-15th century by King John I as a hunting lodge and transformed into a palace by King Manuel I for his grandmother, the Queen Mother, Infanta Brites. The tiles at the palace are in blue - azul, in Portuguese - which accounts for the name azulejos.

By the 17th century the local artisans had mastered the craft and began to use yellow, purple and green in their purely geometric designs. By 1650 tile panels representing mythological scenes, hunting motifs and landscapes made their appearance and before long azulejos were decorated with garlands, cherubs and blazons.

A tile craze swept the country, creating so great a demand that tiles were even imported from the Netherlands, replacing the local kind in popularity.

In the early 18th century, in an effort to regain Portuguese control of the market, an artisan named Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes and his son, Policarpo, set up a tile school in Lisbon, creating panels in the baroque style, primarily of Old Testament themes. By 1740 tiles began to be made on an industrial scale, resulting in a rapid deterioration in quality. Then, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of the city and many of the factories, quality, hand-made tiles again became popular. They have remained so ever since. Perhaps the best known of the tilemakers are those of Sant'Anna, which are handmade from start to finish, exactly as they have been since the company was founded in 1741. Their showroom and shop in Lisbon is at 95 Rua do Alecrim, 1200 Lisbon, where beyond a mosaic of sample tiles, there are also handmade and painted ceramic bowls, lavabos, lamps, jars, candlesticks, jardinieres, fountains, chandeliers and figurines.

Sant'Anna tiles are available in New York at Country Floors, 15 East 16th Street, New York, N.Y. 10003; 212-627-8300), which, by exclusive contract, buys all tiles exported by the company. The tiles sold in New York (and the store's exclusivity applies only to tiles), are not for sale at Sant'Anna in Lisbon, but there is a wide enough selection of others in Lisbon to suit most tastes and pocketbooks. Individual tiles in Lisbon cost about one-quarter as much as those in New York.

Prices in Lisbon range from $1 to $12 a tile. A large blue and white plate costs about $250, a hand-painted soup tureen about $166. Lamps cost about $125, lidded urns $165, large platters around $80 and a bathroom lavabo from $125.

Shipping and insurance costs double the price. And if you are thinking of carrying them on the plane yourself be aware that a small package of tiles is heavy, and enough to do a kitchen or bath would require two strong people to carry. Sant'Anna will ship orders of not more than 200 tiles direct to your home.

About a half-hour taxi ride from the center of the city is the Sant'Anna factory, in the Belem district. Although there are no organized tours, private or small-group tours can be arranged by calling ahead.

At the factory visitors can see artisans creating the tiles, tile panels and pottery from start to finish. On the first floor, where the kilns are situated, the clay is first placed into a machine and stamped into small squares. The squares are then placed on wood and covered with sand to remove water from the clay. The backs of the tiles are roughened to simulate an antique look, then the tiles are taken to a machine that stamps them and presses them to proper size. After that they are baked in a kiln at 2,012 degrees Fahrenheit. In the next step glaze is applied and they are hand-painted. They are then rebaked in the kiln.

Upstairs, artisans paint the tiles and other pottery. One side of the large studio is devoted to the decorating of large tile panels. Here three artisans work on the designs. On the other side, perhaps a dozen people paint tiles, vases, lavabos and other pottery.

It takes one worker a day to paint about 100 tiles. Since there are no schools for teaching tile-painting, the workers are trained on the premises. Those who show promise are apprenticed for a year before they are ready to assume a full-time position.

The tiles of Sant'Anna decorate public buildings and private residences throughout the world. In the United States they can be seen by appointment at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington and at Bloomingdale's in New York, Rich's in Atlanta and at both Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago. A GUIDE TO TILE BUYING The Choices

Visitors to Lisbon can find a great variety of decorative tiles on sale, from antiques from the ruins of monasteries, churches and palaces to contemporary artwork and hand-painted reproductions of old tiles.

Prices vary widely, depending on condition and age. Hand-painted reproductions are more expensive if they are designed by hand, cut by hand and signed by the artist. Unsigned, machine-cut tiles are less expensive and those designed using stencils even less.

Only a few shops offer antiques but many ceramic shops carry reproductions of tiles from the 16th and 17th centuries, generally in blue and yellow geometric patterns, or 18th-century blue and white panels often depicting rural, religious and nautical scenes.

In the 20th century there has been a revival in the art of azulejos, led by prominent Portuguese painters, including Jorge Barradas, Almada Negreiros, Manuel Alves Cargaleiro and Sa Nogueira. Now many independent artists are producing work with ancient and modern designs and a rich palette of colors. The Sources

Sant'Anna, 95 Rua do Alecrim, Lisbon 1200, Portugal (showroom); 322-537. The factory is at 96 Calcada Boa Hora, Belem, Lisbon, Portugal; 648-035. Showroom open weekdays from 9 A.M. to 7 P.M. and 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. Saturday; closed Sunday. Factory open weekdays from 8 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 1:30 to 6 P.M. The store will mail a catalogue to anyone who writes in for one.

Solar, 68-70 Rua Dom Pedro V, Lisbon 1100, Portugal; 346-522. Antique tiles ranging from delicate blue-white and yellow designs from the 15th century to Art Deco. Prices, calculated at a rate of 154 escudos to the dollar, range from 65 cents to $19.50 for an ancient tile in good condition.

Berta Marinho designs and makes tiles according to ancient rules and techniques in her Santa Rufino workshop (9A Calcada Conde de Penafiel, Lisbon 1100, Portugal; 876-018), near the Castelo Sao Jorge in the heart of the old city. She specializes in reproductions of 16th-century tiles as well as copies of the work of modern Portuguese painters. Prices are about $9.75 to $13 a tile.

Fabrica Ceramica Viuva Lamego, 25 Largo do Intendente, Lisbon 1100, Portugal; 575-929. Wide selection of copies of 18th- and 19th-century panels, ranging from 60 cents to about $2.50.

Fabrica de Ceramica Constancia, 8 Calcada Santo Domingo a Lapa, Lisbon 1200, Portugal; 600-017. Offers decorative modern tiles, at from 50 cents to $6.50 a tile. The company specializes in reproducing designs from photographs.

Sao Simao Arte, 86 Almirante Reis, Vila Fresca de Azeitao, south of Lisbon; 208-3135. Reproductions of 17th-century tiles, mostly flowers, running from $1.30 to $6.50 a piece.
Isto E Aquilo, Largo de Misericordia, Cascais 2750, Portugal, 20 minutes by car south of Lisbon; 284-0956. Reproductions of 17th- and 18th-century tile panels, fruits and flowers, priced at about $39 for a four-tile panel to $116 for a 30-tile panel.

Bicesse Tiles, Portugal; Restores ancient tiles taken from old homes, chapels and other buildings that are being demolished. Priced at $9.75 to $32.50 a tile depending on age and condition. Also makes copies of old tiles for between $5 to $7.75, depending on whether the tiles are cut by machine or hand.

Castel de Palmela, at Palmela, south of Lisbon (no telephone). Antonio Carlos Santos runs a shop in the old guardhouse. On display are hand-painted tiles by his wife, Maria Cecilia Silva. She does reproductions of old tile panels, including a a 24-tile blue, white and yellow panel of a peacock for $78, and signed single- tile flowers priced at $3 a piece.

MARVINE HOWE

New York Times

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