Friday, April 2, 2010

Spring Break Travels - Part 2: Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Brightly colored tiles called azulejos are one of Portugal's most distinctive traditional art forms, covering not only interior surfaces but even entire buildings. Azulejos are also commonly found in Spain and in some former Spanish colonies in Latin America, and they are close cousins to the North African tile mosaics known as الزليج az-zillij. In fact, the Arabic word az-zillij, commonly transliterated according to French phonetics as zellige, is actually the origin of the Portuguese and Spanish word azulejo. However, the azulejo styles predominant in Portugal actually differ quite a bit from those found in Spain and North Africa. The azulejos of Spain and her former colonies have actually remained quite close to their North African roots and are mainly decorated with intricate geometric designs in a fairly wide range of colors. In Portugal, however, azulejo designs are generally more organic and frequently figurative, at times depicting entire stories, cityscapes, and even battle scenes. Furthermore, due in part to the influence of Delft porcelain, the vast majority of Portuguese azulejos are kept in a distinctive color range of blue and white, eschewing the polychrome antics of their Hispanic and Arab brethren. Furthermore, it was by an large only in Portugal that people decided to use these tiles to cover entire interiors, floor to ceiling, as well as outside façades. As a result, Portugal's azulejo tiles have developed into a truly unique art form, and one that continues to be very much present in everyday life throughout the country. It is only fitting, then, that in the nation's capital city of Lisbon one can actually find an entire museum dedicated to the art of the tile.
 Figurative azulejo panels in the distinctive shades of blue and white
Known as the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, or "National Museum of the Azulejo", this museum is housed in the buildings of the Mosteiro da Madre de Deus, or "Monastery of the Mother of God", a 500 year-old former monastery with some beautiful tile decorations, three courtyards, and a large collection of relics. 
 The plantings greeting visitors at the entrance of the museum
The smallest of the courtyards is now covered but the other two are still open to the sky and contain two very different garden spaces. The larger one is a rather traditional cloister with a central fountain, formal box hedges (Buxus sempervirens), and hybrid tea roses (Rosa sp.).
The larger courtyard garden photographed from the second-story gallery
The somewhat smaller courtyard is situated next to the former kitchen of the monastery which now serves as the museum's café and is planted rather lushly with various tropical plants. It is covered with lattice-work and netting to provide shade and has a fountain at one end and a small central watercourse that runs across the central paved terrace. During the summer months this is where visitor's to the café would sit  but at the time of our visit it was still a bit chilly.
 The fountain and rill in the smaller courtyard, very reminiscent of Moorish designs

The walls of the courtyard are almost completely covered in creeping fig (Ficus pumila)

Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) underplanted with spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum 'Variegatum')
Besides the courtyard gardens, however, there is also plenty of floral interest to found in the actual tiles on display.
One of the more famous azulejo designs at the museum - I have actually seen this one on postcards.
For more information on the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, you can visit its website here, and finally, as a side note, here is an interesting recent article on azulejos closer to the Spanish and North African style in Puebla, Mexico.

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