Portugal is a country of artisans, and ceramics are a big part of the country’s crafty heritage. Those blue-and-white tiles in the cities of Lisbon and Porto may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Portuguese ceramics. But there’s more to it.
From the naturalist designs of Bordalo Pinheiro to the colorful figures of Estremoz and the contemporary designs of up-and-coming artists, you’ll be surprised how much this country has to offer.
In this guide, we’re giving you a brief introduction to Portuguese ceramics. It covers the history of the craft and the different styles across the country, including our beloved Alentejo.
History of Ceramics in Portugal
Clay has been used in Portugal since pre-historic times, but ceramics as an art form took off with the Romans and the Moors when they landed in the Iberian Peninsula. By the 13th century, decorative tiles began appearing in Andalusia. It was here that the Portuguese King Manuel I fell in love with the azulejo and brought it back home, establishing the national ceramic industry.
At first, tiles decorated palaces and churches as a symbol of wealth. But everything changed when Lisbon was hit by the 1755 earthquake. Buildings were erected quickly and with a uniformity that allowed for scale; locals used tiles to give the uniform facades a unique, textured and personal look and feel. You can learn more about the history of this traditional craft at the Museu do Azulejo in Lisbon.
Tiles were just a tiny part of the industry, though. Alongside the azulejo, artisans also worked on faience, vases, and ceramic figures, and each region adopted a different style.
Ceramic facades in Lisbon
Ceramics in Portugal Today
Portuguese ceramics have slowly evolved through the years. In Lisbon, for example, tiles have become an integral part of the city’s street art scene. You will see it in the large panels adorning the metro stations or the mural dos azulejos in Alfama.
The old master potters are still around, too, but there's also a new generation of crafters changing the way we look at ceramics. Portugal is a country where tradition and innovation walk side by side, and that's what we love about it.
The diverse ceramic cultures of Portugal
Pretty much every region in Portugal has its own ceramic style. In the North, cities like Viana do Castelo are renowned for their floral designs, while Barcelos is the birthplace of the iconic rooster figure. You can visit the town’s pottery museum to learn more about other ceramic forms produced here.
A classic find from the pottery museum!
Further down, in the village of Molelos, black clay takes center stage. Meanwhile, around Coimbra, the pieces feature intricate designs influenced by Moorish art and Chinese porcelain.
One of the most famous names in the industry is the Bordalo Pinheiro brand. This factory in Caldas da Rainha makes whimsical dishware shaped like birds and cabbages. The town is also home to a small ceramics museum.
In the southern regions of the Alentejo and the Algarve, many villages have transformed into pottery hubs. Among them is São Pedro do Corval (Alentejo) and Porches (Algarve).
After exploring Portugal from north to south, we fell in love with the Alentejo ceramics. There’s something about this region that captured us straight away. First of all, it is home to the biggest pottery center in the country, the village of São Pedro do Corval. Here old masters still shape the clay by hand and slowly throw the wheel in front of you.
Then there’s the immense variety in styles. From the traditional tableware of Redondo to the playful figures of Estremoz and the vases of Nisa adorned with little bits of quartz that resemble embroideries. And, of course, there are also new artists bringing a modern twist to this ancient craft.
Some pieces from our new ceramics line!
Want to learn more about this new movement? Next week we will be releasing our interview with our new ceramicist artist based in Alentejo!