Sara Pierdonà explores Portugal's impressive ceramic history, and discovers how contemporary makers, and initiatives like Portugal Ceramics, are preserving traditions today
Palacio Frontera, Lisbon © Miguel Flores-Vianna
It's well known that the Portuguese are consummate travelers. During the 17th century they exported tea to Europe and, thanks to the contagious enthusiasm of Catherine of Braganza, instilled in the English a passion for the beverage that was anything but temporary. They were also the first Europeans to reach Japan, whereupon they possibly introduced the word Arigato ('thank you').
Through the cultural influences they learnt from trade in Africa, they produced sparkling examples of the Moorish style and made the aesthetic stratagems of aniconic art their own. Behind this sequence of events and feats, there is another story that runs underground, creating pleasing correlations: the history of ceramics.
Everyone knows about azulejos, everyone photographs them in the streets of Porto and Lisbon, taking one home to rest their ladle on, or use as a paperweight. The first date back to the 16th century, following a technique learnt in Morocco after the conquest of Ceuta. However, the phenomenon exploded the following century, after the invention (in Italy) of the majolica technique, a particular ceramic in which colors are applied directly onto wet clay to give the tiles the graceful luminosity of a fresco. Used inside or on the façades of Baroque churches, azulejos were particularly prized for balancing the profusion of gold and the gaudy opulence of the surrounding inlays, a combination that still conveys a harmony poised between the hieratic and the folkloric.
Almost as widespread as azulejos tiles, although not intrinsically belonging to the Portuguese national identity, are the Iznik ceramics of Islamic import. The historical events between 'the Moors' and the Portuguese people are centuries old, passing through troubled eras such as those of the reconquista, to less bloody periods marked by commercial collaboration. The result of this is 'the Moorish style', whose architectural extravagances and ingenuity we admire today.
The Iznik ceramics loved, collected and copied by the Portuguese have, in turn, an illustrious cultural antecedent, namely the refined blue and white porcelain of the Ming dynasty. Starting with the 'vine branch' motif, simplified to suit the skills of the local craftsmen, Iznik ceramics gradually began to gain characteristics of their own. An initial breakthrough was the introduction of turquoise, quickly followed by sage green and new plant forms, similar to pomegranates and artichokes.
When the craftsmen reached the peak of their mastery of technique, plates, vases and tiles featured not only red details, but also a splendid repertoire of images: carnations, tulips, daisies and swathes of clouds chasing each other around the edges.
Ceramic detail, Portugal © Sara Pierdonà
The Portuguese language has a term that teases expert linguists, ready to swear that it is untranslatable, and that pleases the imagination of poets, who have scattered it in their verses. Saudade: it can mean sadness, nostalgia or happy memory. And what better than an object to awaken it? Whether you are in a small inland town or a village overlooking the ocean, you will always find an old craftsman displaying his wares or working with concentration on a ceramic cup or crucifix.
Not necessarily vibrant azulejos, nor sophisticated Izniks. Often, they are simply earth-colored ceramics, glazed but without decoration, sometimes made without the use of a potter's wheel. And yet, there is something touching about these somewhat rough and irregular objects. Something suggests they were made in exactly the same way decades ago, generations ago.
Luckily, the fate of Portuguese craftsmanship does not fall under the spell of saudade, except in the sentimental experience of the traveler who comes across a beautiful object and is moved by it. Portugal Ceramics involves and promotes the savoir-faire of Portuguese craftsmen, involving both small workshops producing objects made entirely by hand, and internationally recognized historical companies.
Vessels waiting to be glazed during a factory tour with Portugal Ceramics
The connecting thread is always tradition; indeed, the initiatives' mission statement reads: “We want to help people celebrate stories, to preserve memories”. The organization has even devised a rather poetic (and true) way of referring to ceramics: they call the technique, “the art of possibility”.
The brand and project - which exhibited during Milan Design Week 2023 - showcasing how Portuguese ceramics can bring art to the everyday - supports a long list of diverse makers, a well of discoveries for any lover of the applied arts.
There is Vista Alegre, an historic, important company founded in 1824, with production initially focused on glass because the porcelain process was still unknown. Today, the factory lies within a beautiful traditional yellow and white building, which also houses a museum. There is Primagera, a company with three different locations and an innovative approach based on technology; there is Jomazè, whose catalogue displays earthy colored vases and tapered shapes; there is Norterra, specializing in vases of all colors and craquelé glazes.
With thanks to Portugal Ceramics;