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The Master Tile Makers of Lisbon

<i> Merin is a New York City free-lance writer. </i>

Lisbon’s Old World charm is greatly enhanced by the city’s cobblestone streets, many of which are patterned with alternating dark and light stones, and by the mosaics of lovely, colorful azulejos (tiles) that adorn the buildings outside and in.

These tiles have floral designs, geometric patterns and animal motifs and are sometimes fitted together to form large figurative murals. They are a patchwork of color throughout the city. Even when they’re old and faded or somewhat crumbling, or when sections have been replaced with contrasting colors or patterns, the tilework creates an air of cheeriness and joie de vivre.

While wandering through the city’s twisty little streets, I commented to a Portuguese companion that I found the tile-fronted buildings absolutely enchanting.

“They’re very practical, really,” he replied. “They make life much easier. We don’t have to paint.”

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Moorish Legacy

Paint? Who would want to? The Portuguese have found such a lovely and stylish way to be utilitarian. Tiles have been a part of the Portuguese architectural scene since the Moors dominated the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago. Today, azulejos are manufactured with many of the ancient patterns and with techniques similar to the ones used years ago.

Sant’Anna (more formally known as Fabrica de Fiancas E Azulejos Sant’Anna) is one of Lisbon’s most traditional tile manufacturers. The company has been in business since 1741. The showroom and shop (91 Rua do Alecrim, phone 32-25-37) occupies a dusty, unpretentious building.

Inside, the walls are a mosaic of sample tiles and the floor space is filled with tile-topped tables, fountains, planters, umbrella stands. There are also beautiful ceramic bowls, jars, candlesticks, chandeliers and figurines. These are all handmade at the Sant’Anna factory (96 Calcada da Boa Hora, phone 63-82-92).

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It isn’t usual for customers to visit the factory, but they may make special arrangements to do so with the shop’s helpful sales staff.

The factory is a family-run operation employing about 100 artisans. Quality control is guarded at every stage of manufacture. After the tiles are pressed into shape and baked, they are checked for strength by a worker tapping two tiles together. The factory resounds with the ceaseless rhythmic clinking of the tiles being tested. Perfect tiles are sent off for painting.

Secret Formula

The formulas for glazes are a guarded company secret. Painters use a pattern stencil but the work is done freehand, producing the variations that keep designs alive and fascinating. The factory’s best painters are assigned to special projects such as murals and, most popularly, name plaques or name and address plaques. It takes about two months for special orders to be filled.

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Sant’Anna tiles are sold in the United States by Country Floors, a nationwide chain of stores that imports tiles from around the world. In their agreement with Country Floors, Sant’Anna is restricted to the sale of only 200 tiles per customer on certain designs, and they must be for personal use.

But the price is right. The tiles cost $1.50 to $6 in Lisbon; in the United States, $6.50 each and up. Special-order name plaques usually have 6 to 10 tiles and cost $30 and up, depending upon size and design. Sant’Anna will ship the tiles and other items to your home.

Another tile shop, Viuva Lamego (25 Largo do Intecente, phone 57-02-62), is in a small square where tiled buildings abound. Each of the buildings is covered with azulejos in contrasting colors and patterns.

In the midst of this patchwork, Viuva Lamego’s facade is a real attention-getter, absolutely charming. The building is covered with tiled portraits of courtiers in full fancy dress and with baskets overflowing with bouquets.

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Ancient Patterns

Viuva Lamego was founded in 1849 and has an impressive archive of hundreds of old tile patterns. These are the source for designs made today. The method of manufacture and hand-painting is similar to that used by Sant’Anna, but the look of the tiles is different. Viuva Lamego tiles have a newer look about them--the colors seem brighter, pattern edges harder and more contrasting.

Viuva Lamego also makes special-order plaques and ceramic pieces, using designs similar to those on the tiles. They, too, will ship. Their prices are slightly lower than those of Sant’Anna. A small name plaque, for example, costs about $25.

Despite Lisbon’s air of antiquity, many of the city’s buildings are only about 200 years old. In 1755 the city suffered a powerful earthquake and subsequent tidal wave that destroyed most of its old buildings.

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Much of the tilework seen around Lisbon is relatively recent, too. But tiles dating back to the 15th through 18th centuries have been salvaged from palaces, public buildings, churches or monasteries around Portugal, when they’ve been torn down or reconstructed.

Antiquities on Sale

Many of these sets of tiles have found their way to resale at a shop called Solar (68-70 Rua Dom Pedro V, phone 36-55-22) on Lisbon’s “antique row.”

This dusty shop is a trove of tiles. Large tables, labeled by century, are piled high with the square ceramic tablets, each with its particular pattern of colorful glaze. They are arranged in no particular order--you dig through dozens to find two that match.

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Some are in less than perfect condition, but the fact that they’ve survived the centuries at all is amazing. Patience pays off and patterns begin to emerge. Even the damaged tiles have a wonderful patina of history. The prices are reasonable; 17th-Century tiles, for example, cost $4 to $100, depending on condition.

Tabletop Tableaux

Some of the tables at Solar contain entire works of art, great tableaux from eras past. A 19th-Century mural of a country scene in blue and white, with 77 tiles in excellent condition, was priced at $2,250.

In addition, Solar has a wonderful collection of Art Deco tiles. Samples of these are displayed on a large board. A number next to each design indicates the quantity of tiles available. Other objets d’art for sale at Solar include beautiful age-worn pillars of wood, some of them extravagantly carved, and some religious art.

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For modernists, Lisbon produces quality machine-made tiles in trendy colors and up-to-date designs. Fabrica de Loica de Sacavem (49-57 Ave. da Liberdad, phone 32-39-02) has a broad spectrum of samples. The tiles cost about 12 cents each, or about $7 for 50 tiles. This shop does not ship, so arrangements for getting the tiles home must be made independently.

(Prices quoted in this article reflect the currency exchange rate at the time of writing.)


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