The panel in front of me is longer than the length of my living room; even the most creative iPhone camera angle can't capture it all. Alone in this room, it creates no need for any other exhibit or decoration. The blue and white tiles are sharp against a wall painted blood-red, and the drawings on them are rendered in exquisite, intricate detail.

When I walk into this gallery — which I nearly missed, tucked as it is into the corner of the Museu Nacional de Azulejo in Lisbon, Portugal — only a handful of other visitors mill through the room. It's late in a muggy afternoon, and the room soon empties, leaving me alone with my camera and this regal piece of art, which depicts the city of Lisbon in the 1800s.

The hundreds of individually painted tiles that compose this long tableau give a rare glimpse into the city's history. Like the pixels of a photograph, the tiles are indecipherable individually. But when hundreds of them come together, they compose doors and arches, sloping roofs, waves crashing along the port's rocky beach. To create the full, impressive image, you need every tile perfectly in place, a Herculean task when considering the tiles' advanced age, their delicacy, and the many hands they've passed through.

Since 1980, a small but growing group of Portuguese have made it their mission to find, and repair when necessary, as many of the country's iconic tiles, called azulejos, that they can.

This tile mural of Lisbon in 1700 stretches the entire length of the Museu's display room, where it is the sole item on exhibit. | (Casey O'Brien/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

Something different

The Museu Nacional du Azulejo, a stone monolith in a quiet neighborhood a little outside downtown Lisbon, looks more like a palace than a museum. (Before it was a museum it was a convent, and then a trade school.) The facility houses some of the largest collections of the city's azulejos, which have become, especially recently, emblematic of this small Iberian nation. On Mondays, when no visitors are allowed, members of the museum's restorations team take over the building, spreading out their tools to painstakingly refurbish tiles that range from a few decades to hundreds of years old.

In April, 2019, when I first visit the Museu, Alexandre Pais, a historian who is one of the two heads of the restoration project, unlocks the museum's tall, wrought iron gate and guides me past the shuttered ticket counter to a quiet, verdant courtyard garden. There, surrounded by creeping vines and a bubbling fountain, he begins telling me the azulejos story.

Pais, a neatly dressed man with dark hair and olive skin, is soft-spoken but confident; his English is formal and perfectly correct. Azulejos, he explains, are unique to Portugal, and they cover the surfaces of a great many buildings in Lisbon, giving the city a whimsical look that would fit in with a Dr. Seuss story. The love affair between Portugal and tile art has been going on a long time, dating as far back as the 13th century when the Moors first brought tiles to the Iberian Peninsula. The term "azulejo", which is used only to refer to Portuguese and Spanish tile, actually derives from the Arabic word for "polished stone." Azulejos became especially popular in Portugal in the 16th century; since then they have become icons of the country's culture.

"Azulejo," Pais says, "is something different from tile." While Portuguese tiles appear in a rainbow of shades, traditional azulejos show a limited color palette — mainly blue, white, and yellow. Their intricate designs vary from simple geometric patterns to complex tableaus that depict the lives and culture of the Portuguese people. Like the giant portrait of Lisbon that enchanted me on my first visit to the museum, azulejos typically take up whole walls and depict extensive stories, portraits, and landscapes in painstaking detail. Pais and his partner on the project, Lurdes Esteves, have made it their life's work to reconstruct these panels one painstaking tile at a time. It is remarkably slow work.

The tiles that Pais and his team collect are not all hundreds of years old—some are from the twentieth century, like these tiles that Pais dates to around 1950. | (Casey O'Brien/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

Ceramic puzzles

After our discussion in the garden, Pais tours me through the restorers' work area. Behind a flimsy screen and a sign in Portuguese and English asking patrons of the museum to keep out, we step into a room so narrow it's almost a hallway. Everywhere — on the floor, along the walls nearly to the ceiling, on long wooden tables lined with tools — are boxes of tiles. There are tiles from Lisbon and tiles from Porto, tiles with patterns and tiles with illustrations, tiles stamped with the name of the factory they came from, and tiles whose origin is still a mystery. Pais' labors resemble detective work more than historical research, at least the way scholars practice it. He spends his days poring through photographs, primary sources such as receipts and letters, illustrations, and various books to find any evidence of tiles that look similar to those currently stockpiled in the museum.

I am awed by the collection's sheer volume — it's a ceramic treasure trove fit for Indiana Jones. Pais says there are about 60,000 tiles in the museum's inventory — and that's only so far. Almost every week, he explains, more arrive. Tiles are regularly donated by the boxful from private citizens, businesses, and anyone else who discovers them, typically during restorations and remodels. Pais tries to take them all, although there is no room left. "I don't know what could be important. Probably these donations, they don't have anything unique or interesting to our history. But some, they might. One hundred years from now, we may want these tiles. So, I take them," he says, gesturing to a new arrival in the corner.

"How long," I ask, "would it take you to restore them all and find out where they came from if you didn't take any more starting today?" Pais looks pained. "Years," he replies, "Five at least. But I do, I take more all the time. It just grows and grows."

When tiles arrive, team members start by laying them out like a massive, extremely delicate, antique puzzle, but without any picture on a cardboard box to guide them. "The first thing I try to do, usually, is the subject," Pais says. "We try to determine if they came from churches or palaces, and what church or palace. Sometimes it's not easy. Our success margin is about forty percent, which is quite good."

As he pokes along, Pais looks for clues — objects like books or fine clothes that point to holiness or nobility, recognizable faces of saints, distinctive landscapes. After compiling all their evidence, the team begins, slowly, to find how their clues connect. "This is a really interesting project," he says. "We have chemists, physicists, engineers and geologists. It's a very wide group of people."

For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.

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