Studying the Art of Azulejos in São Luís, Brazil’s City of Tiles

It's not just the tiles: there are wrought iron railings, fanlights and all kinds of other details to admire (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s not just the tiles: there are wrought iron railings, fanlights and all kinds of other details to admire (©Coen Wubbels)

In the doorway stands an elderly man. Our eyes meet and I shake his hand. “You are lucky to live in such a beautiful building. What an incredibly tiled façade your home has,” I comment. For the past couple of hours I have been strolling through the center of São Luís and I still don’t believe what I am seeing: This is by far the best-preserved center of any of Brazil’s major cities. Why is that?

The neighbor talked with such passion that I seriously think he daily checks if each and every tile is still in place! (©Coen Wubbels)

The neighbor talks with such passion that I seriously think he daily checks whether each and every tile is still in place! (©Coen Wubbels)

The man beams. “Oh yes, we have a wonderful city. But here, in this street we have the most beautiful tiled house of all São Luís,” he exclaims, and points pointing across the street to a façade with tiles depicting an abstract flower motive in white, yellow and blue.

The Theft Of Azulejos

I ask him if many azulejos are stolen as during my walk through the city I noticed many damaged façades. “Not so much anymore. People used to rob and sell the tiles, but these last few years locals have come to understand the value of the tiled façades,” he explains. “When people see somebody stealing or destroying tiles they call the police, who show up rapidly. And nobody has ever robbed a tile from that house. We watch it from our window constantly.”

I leave with a smile, and a hope that São Luís’ legacy of azulejos will remain intact. Despite the overwhelming number of extraordinarily tiled façades (“most tiled buildings outside Lisbon,” a local stated with conviction), it is a crumbling city, which could use some serious restoration.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It is Brazil’s most abundantly tiled city, and who knows indeed number 2 in the world after Lisbon.
  • São Luís is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1997).
  • Admirers of tiles will love São Luís, as will architecture buffs.

São Luís’ Colonial History

There is still a lot of renovation to be done in the city (©Coen Wubbels)

There is still a lot of renovation to be done in the city (©Coen Wubbels)

São Paulo was founded 1612 by the French, was ruled by the Dutch for a couple of years and then taken over by the Portuguese who ruled it until Brazil’s independence in 1822. During the years of colonization, São Luís grew into a thriving city thanks to the business of prosperous rice, sugar and cotton plantations.

Buildings downtown go back as far as the 17th century and are characterized by tiled roofs, elongated windows and doors, and balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Lots of different kind of tiles in São Luís' art museum (©Coen Wubbels)

Lots of different kind of tiles in São Luís’ art museum (©Coen Wubbels)

Many still have their original azulejos, although these weren’t added until later, starting in the 18th century after people discovered that tiles protected the façades from crumbling too quickly in the tropical climate.

Tiles were produced in Portugal, where they had a semi-industrial or industrial technique to produce standard-pattern tiles in cities such as Coimbra, Lisbon and Porto. Tiles were, and are, made in other countries as well, among which the Netherlands, France and Germany and exported to São Luís.

From the Colonial Streets to an Art Museum

Rua Portugal has been thoroughly renovated and the result is visible (©Coen Wubbels)

Rua Portugal has been thoroughly renovated and the result is visible (©Coen Wubbels)

The city’s largest concentration of tiled facades is in the cobbled street of Rua Portugal, where I stumble upon an art museum whose ground floor is dedicated to azulejos. An employee accompanies me and answers my questions, which is how I learn tiles from France are recognizable by their size (13-13 centimeters), which is different from German and Portuguese tiles (13.5-13.5 centimenters).

The Question remains: Why is São Luís so much better preserved than Brazil’s other major cities? The employee explains it to me, “Most cities modernized in the 1950s-1970s, which in those days often meant bulldozing the old and replacing it with new. This didn’t happen in São Luís as it suffered a long economic crisis and there was simply no money to modernize anything at all. By the time prosperity returned to São Luís (today it has one of the world’s deepest ports and is Brazil’s main port to export vast amounts of minerals mined in the state of Pará), Brazil had started to understand the value of old, beautiful buildings so instead of bulldozing it, it has preserved the city center as it is today.”

"Stealing azulejos is a crime", the sign says. Just so you know... (©Coen Wubbels)

“Stealing azulejos is a crime,” the sign says. Just so you know… (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical Information

  • São Luís, along Brazil’s northeast coast of the Atlantic Ocean, can be reached by plane from all major Brazilian cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília Or, if you have more time but little money, take one of the long-distance buses that connect all cities in the country.
  • São Luís is also known as Brazil’s capital of reggae, has an important festival in June called the Bumba Meu Boi, and has a large number of art galleries and craft stores.

Photos by Coen Wubbels

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