Ceramic tiles are one of the oldest forms of decorative art. They have been widely used in architecture due to their durability, technical properties and visual richness. The word “tile” comes from the French word “tuile”, which is derived from the Latin word “tegula”, meaning a roof tile of baked clay. As for the word “ceramic”, it comes from the Greek word “keramikos”, which meant “of pottery” or “for pottery” yani nyungu, and it is related to the Indo-European word “cheros”, which meant “heat”.
The history of ceramic tiles begins with the oldest civilizations. It is known that Egyptians on the 4th millennium B.C. already used them to decorate their houses with blue tile bricks . The glazed bricks were also very common in Mesopotamia; one of its famous applications is the Ishtar Door of Babylon, originally considered one of the World’s Seven Wonders. It was built in the 5th century B.C and decorated with lions, bulls and dragons with a strong glazed blue as background.
The Islamic Empires were responsible for the dissemination of the ceramic tile as a wall covering. Initially mosaics were used resembling the byzantine ones, creating drawings from pieces of stones. But soon enough, under the ceramic Chinese influence accessible through the silk routes, the ceramic tiles with its glaze and drawings began being used. By now they were thicker and widely used in Islamic architecture, as an inside and outside covering, as seen at the monumental public buildings of the Iranian city of Isfahan, capital of the Safavid empire on the 16th century.
The Ottoman Empire became famous a kind of ceramic tile from a Turkish city near Istanbul called Iznik. The Iznik tiles had a special glow due to its quartz layers, and shades of red never achieved before. Tiles motifs were generally floral, geometric or Koran passages with beautiful Arabic calligraphy. The Iznik tiles ended up being widely used inside mosques because they helped to resonate the sound of prayers and also gave a feeling of amplitude, taking away the weight of the heavy structure.
In the Iberian Peninsula the ceramic tiles were introduced by Moors. At the palace of Allambra in Granada, constructed by the Nasrid Kings in the 13th and 14th century, it is possible to see an incredible work of art. The ceramic tiles were used there in different shapes and colors, and applied to the walls creating beautiful geometric patterns.
However, it was Portugal after the 16th century that truly embraced the ceramic tile art and made it one of its cultural expressions. By now they were done in a squared shape, usually measuring 5.5 inches. The ceramic tiles were used back then everywhere, from public places to private and religious ones, on outside and inside walls.
Very popular on the 17th century, the Dutch tiles from Delft were usually decorated with central figures and delicate ones on the four edges of each piece, creating a united appearance when together combined. These tiles suffered great influence from the white and blue Chinese Ming porcelain, which was imported by the Dutch East India Company and had become a fashion back then.
In the colonial Brazil, ceramic tiles from Portugal and Holland were rapidly incorporated to the national culture as ceramic tiles are impermeable, thus protecting from humidity, are easy to wash and also the pieces reflect the sun providing good thermal environment when used on the facades. It is easy to find nice examples from colonial tiles specially in the North and North-Eastern part of the country, together with Rio de Janeiro state; one beautiful example being the Nossa Senhora do Outeiro Church panel.
After the 30’s, the renovation of Brazilian architecture renewed the use of ceramic tiles, specially due to the neo-colonial movement, which aimed to use traditional local materials. In 1940, Paulo Rossi Osir created the Osiarte, a company that executed amazing works such as Portinari panel in the Ministry of Health and Education building in Rio de Janeiro, designed by Le Corbusier in 1945 together with Lucio Costa, Niemeyer and Reidy, among others.
Athos Bulcão, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and had worked with Portinari in the São Francisco do Assis panel in Pampulha, gave a new perspective on the ceramic tile art, integrating it beautifully with the architecture. Working with Oscar Niemeyer from 1955, Athos filled the new city of Brasilia with his geometric panels, colors and rhythms.
In Kenya, the oldest ceramic artefacts have been found in the coast and date more than 1,000 years. Most likely brought by traders from the East.