Why Are The Buildings In Portugal Covered In Tiles?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

One of the best parts of strolling through the historic heart of Portugal’s cities — like Lisbon, Porto, and Lagos — is encountering the stunning decorative tiles that can be found covering the facades of both medieval and more modern homes, restaurants, cafes, churches, shops, and train stations.

But where did all these tiles come from?

And, why are they all over the buildings in these cities?

These polished painted tiles — called azulejos after the Arabic al-zulaich, meaning polished stone — were introduced to the country by the Moors, who had learned the craft from the Persians.

The Persians likely were influenced by Roman floor mosaics that they encountered in the 7th century when moving into parts of North Africa that had once been ruled by Rome.

After the Portuguese took over Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, they started working with this form of tile work themselves. The historic Moorish art mixed with the 16th century Italian invention of “majolica” — painting colors directly onto wet clay over a layer of white enamel — made the tiles bright and vibrant and the Portuguese fell in love with the art form.

Or, more accurately, became obsessed.

For most of its history, Portugal was incredibly wealthy due to their success in exploration and they used some of that wealth to decorate the walls, floors, ceilings, and facades of both their private and public residences in colorful, intricate azulejos.

The earliest examples created in Portugal date from the 1580s (check them out in Lisbon’s Igreja de Sao Roque on your next visit!).

Demand began to rise in the 17th century and the Netherlands’ blue-and-white tiles began to appear in the country (see below) as they were already masters in mass production. Portuguese tile makers also upped their game and started figuring out ways to mass produce their own designs.

There was a massive need for more tiles again after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake rocked the city and resulted in a need to rebuild entire blocks.

The 19th century art-nouveau and art-deco movements was a dream for azulejo lovers who used them to create incredible facades and interiors for the restaurants, shops, and homes.

Now, some of the most stunning examples of this artwork can be seen just wondering around the city streets. Lisbon’s metro also has some of the best examples of contemporary Portuguese tile art if you are interested in checking out more modern interpretations.

The images below were all taken of the facades of buildings in Lisbon — click on the individual images to see a larger view of each pattern.

The earliest tiles in the country are Moorish from Seville that were decorated with interlocking or geometric floral patterns. Figurative art (seen below) was not something that Muslim artists created due to religious reasons. These types of tiles were created by Portuguese or Dutch artisans.

If, like me, you find yourself falling in love with with tiles of Portugal and want to learn more, I highly recommend a visit to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon that has tiles dating back to 400 years!

It is located in a 16th century convent and covers the history of azulejo from the early Ottoman empire to the present day.

The most impressive exhibits include a 36m-long panel that depicts pre-earthquake Lisbon, and a cloister covered in intricate gold decorations and tiles. There is also a beautiful, peaceful courtyard to enjoy some treats from the restaurant cafe. Check out the website for opening hours, location, and admission.

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Why are the buildings in Portugal covered in tile?
Why are the buildings in Portugal covered in tile?

Your Guide to The NEW Royal Alberta Museum (RAM)

by Lindsay Shapka in , , , ,

Located in the heart of the city of Edmonton, the capital of Alberta in Canada, the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) opened its doors in its new location in October of 2018. The new space is 419,000 square feet — twice the size of the former museum — making it the largest museum in western Canada!

RAM Building Fast Facts

  • More than 18,000 m3 of concrete was used to construct the Royal Alberta Museum. That's enough to fill more than seven Olympic sized swimming pools!

  • Over 2,500 metric tons of steel reinforcement was cast into the concrete. That's heavier than 500 elephants!

  • Indiana limestone is something we proudly have in common with New York. The limestone that adorns both the interior and exterior was pulled from the same quarry as stones used in the Empire State Building in the United States. (source)

The museum is located on the grounds previously occupied by a Canada Post Office and distribution centre, and there are a few elements in the museum that were preserved from the post office building.

Mosaic murals created by Ernestine Tahedl that were commissioned by the federal government in 1966 for the post office, are now on the façade of the new Royal Alberta Museum building (above left), while terrazzo flooring and limestone panels from the post office are now in the courtyard of the museum's outdoor café (above right).

Planning Your Visit

9810-103a Avenue NW
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada


Adult $19, Youth $10, Children 6 and under are Free (check website for multi-day and annual rates)

*Note: The Royal Alberta Museum rests on Treaty Six territory and the homeland of the Métis. Many of the objects in RAM's collections and many of the stories presented in our galleries are Indigenous. In the spirit of reconciliation, and to honour the unique relationship between Indigenous Peoples of Alberta and the Crown, the museum extends free General Admission to Indigenous Peoples.

Opening Hours
Daily 10 am – 6 pm, Thu + Fri 10 am – 8 pm (check website to confirm hours)

The museum is closed on the last Monday of every month, with the exception of the week of spring break (March or April) and December. The museum is always closed on December 24 and 25.

The RAM’s Main Exhibit Spaces

The main spaces of the museum include the Manitou Asiniy (an artifact and space that has great spiritual significance to the Indigenous peoples in both Alberta and Saskatchewan — photos are not permitted), the Natural History Hall, Human History Hall, Children’s Gallery, and Bug Gallery.

Natural History Hall

This is one of my favourite spaces because it contains fossils of ancient mammals, mammoths, and dinosaurs! Did you know that Alberta is one of the most concentrated areas of dinosaur fossils in the world?!

There are also landscapes to explore, rocks and gemstones, stunning dioramas (see below), and lots of interactive displays for the little ones.

Human History Hall

This hall contains multiple spaces that showcase both permanent and temporary exhibits telling the story of Alberta’s human history — and it has been a vibrant and fascinating one so far!

Beautiful artifacts, handiwork, clothing, and stories from the Indigenous people that lived, and still live, in Alberta are on display.

People from all over the world settled in Alberta and brought with them their costumes, traditions, and cultures (left). They created a new culture, which celebrated new traditions and created products (that we now consider vintage) like you can see in the picture on the right.

There are also feature galleries in the Human History Hall, which on my last visit contained an exhibit showcasing the stories of some of the first black settlers in the province (photo above left), artifacts from WW! (photos above right), and textiles.

Children’s Gallery & Bug Gallery

There is a hand’s on space for the little ones to explore and a bug gallery where you can check out creepy critters from around the world.

The RAM’s Special Exhibit Space

The museum intends to have a touring exhibition in this special exhibit space year-round. Currently,  Vikings: Beyond The Legend — the largest touring exhibition of Viking artifacts in the world — is on loan from the National Museum of Denmark (until October 20, 2019).

There are more than 650 artifacts on display, including jewellery, coins, three Viking warships — including the 37-metre Roskilde 6, the longest Viking warship ever found — and 11 interactive stations.

The three sides of a full-scale replica of the Jelling Rune Stone (coloured so you can see the designs better) is shown above. It is often referred to as “Denmark’s birth certificate” because it tells the story of how Christianity became the kingdom’s main religion.

A replica of Thor’s Hammer (above), was worn as a pendant (usually by women) for protection.

Conservation Spaces

A huge part of any museum is what happens behind the scenes in the storage and conservation areas and, for the first time, this museum has made that work more accessible to the public by putting windows into some of these spaces, so you can watch the archaeologists, scientists, and conservationists at work!

Keep your eye out for windows into the labs, and check the website for available tours and talks of these spaces.

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Your Guide to the Royal Alberta Museum
Your guide to the Royal Alberta Museum

The Paintings in Palazzo Vecchio: Is It Right To Destroy History In The Spirit of Discovery?

by Lindsay Shapka in , , ,

National Geographic has aired a documentary, media outlets from around the world have written stories and Art Historians have taken sides on the controversial search for the elusive, lost Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece

If you have no idea what I am talking about (or are wondering when/how Leonardo lost his painting) here is some background to get you up to speed. 

At the start of the 16th century, the leaders of Florence commissioned Leo to paint a massive fresco (a fresco is basically a painting done directly on a wall) in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio (city hall). They asked that it represent the Florentine Republic’s victory over the Milanese in a battle on the plains of Anghiari that took place on June 29, 1440.

Leonardo decided to use this commission to experiment with some new techniques, but about a year after he started, he abandoned the work, because his experiments had failed and were causing the pigments in the painting to run. 

When the Palazzo Vecchio was going through a renovation 50 years later, Giorgio Vasari — an artist and art historian — was commissioned to paint a new fresco covering the entire wall of the room where the unfinished Da Vinci lived.

This is where the history gets fuzzy.

Some believe that Vasari could never have destroyed a work by Da Vinci and so built a new wall in front of the fresco with an air gap in order to protect it, while others are convinced that he just painted right over top. 

Fast forward to the present…

San Diego University Art History Professor Maurizio Seracini (featured in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code), has made it his life’s work to find the 'missing' Leonardo. Suspecting the rumors that it could still exist behind the Vasari, he travelled to Florence and, after examining the painting himself, discovered the phrase “Cerca Trova” (Seek and You Shall Find) written on a flag in the fresco.

Taking it to be a clue from Vasari himself — very Indiana Jones — he asked for and received permission to bring in high frequency, surface penetrating radar that revealed a hollow space behind the wall where the inscription is. Seeing this as proof that the Da Vinci still exists, he put into motion a plan to drill 14 small holes into the Vasari in order to see if the Leonardo was behind it. That is when the problems started. 

When word got out that someone was going to drill into a famous work of art, there was both public and political outcry. After A LOT of debate, Seracini’s team received permission to drill 6-7 holes, but ONLY in preexisting cracks or in areas that had been recently restored. Because most of these approved zones were not in the target area, what began as a well researched plan, giving the scientists the best chance to achieve success, came down to sheer luck. 

Some believe that Vasari could never have destroyed a work by Da Vinci and so built a new wall in front of the fresco with an air gap in order to protect it, while others are convinced that he just painted right over top

Each hole took painstaking hours to drill and investigate, and before the team could finish their research, they were attacked in the Italian media and work halted as news reports claimed that they were vandals who were drilling up to 78 holes into the existing Vasari and were using devices that emitted neutrons (both lies).  

But, like a scene in a Dan Brown novel, all was not lost.

In an exciting twist, traces of pigments known to be used exclusively by Leonardo were discovered in one of the holes that had been drilled before the media attack. A black pigment found can even be traced back to the Mona Lisa

To Seracini, this has become definite proof that, though the condition of it is unknown, the lost work is there behind the Vasari and needs to be revealed. At this point, he is trying to come up with a way to see more of the pigments behind the Vasari and eventually reveal (what he is convinced is) the Leonardo, while those who are convinced there is nothing there are doing everything that they can think of in order to stop him. 

The controversy brings up very good questions

  • In the art world, who has the right to decide which work is more important — a Da Vinci or a Vasari?

  • Is it right to destroy in order to discover? Disturb in order to satisfy our human need to learn?

  • Is there a compromise to be found?

  • Will the world ever really know what’s behind the wall?

For arguments sake, you could say that we would know nothing about ancient Egypt if we never dug into the pyramid,s and even less about ancient pagan religions if we didn’t disturb the floors and foundations of churches to find the pagan alters that they were built on.

What do you think? 

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