The genesis of the tile dates back to the civilisations of the Near and Far East.
It was widely used as a decorative wall covering, especially for waterproofing masonry. It came to us from the Iberian Peninsula, especially from Portugal, which achieved great development between the 16th and 19th centuries.
There, the suitability of tiles for architecture acquired a peculiar character.
The maritime discoveries, combined with the Italian-Flemish influence, gradually produced major transformations in Portuguese tiles.
In this work, the historian Domingos Vieira Filho comments that in 1778 107,402 tiles arrived in São Luís.
These tiles were probably applied as tiles inside churches or houses, since the taste for tiling the façades of single-storey houses and townhouses in Maranhão only began in the 1840s.
In the middle of the 19th century, a “new way of using tiles emerged in Brazil, which led it to move from the interior of churches, convents, palatial residences or buildings for official use, to the exterior” of façades.
External tile cladding became widespread in coastal cities from north to south, including Belém, São Luís, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre, among other cities with a less frequent practice of tiling façades.
In the nineteenth century, the golden age of the Maranhão economy, tiles were widely accepted as a façade covering material, especially in properties belonging to Portuguese planters and merchants, enriched by the production and export of cotton and rice.
This acceptance is attributed to the aesthetic improvement that the tile incorporates into the façades, while protecting them from the winter rains that occur for six months in the region.
In the 19th century, a significant number of carpet tiles with various patterns, manufactured using the stamping technique, were imported from Portugal for use on the facades of the houses of São Luis.
The trade treaty between Brazil and Portugal, dated in 1834, although allowing commercial transactions with other European countries, announced the preferential acquisition of crockery and tiles from the Metropolis.
tiles to the Metropolis, not favouring the other production centres, which only sent their products to Maranhão on a very small scale.
According to Santos Simões, “it was from Brazil that the new fashion for façade tiles came to the old metropolis – a curious phenomenon of inversion of influences”.
Examples such as Rua Direita, 397, Rua do Ribeirão, 68 and Rua de São Pantaleão, 441 are notable for their modulation with architectural elements.
In the period between 1843 and 1879, several ships with loads of tiles arrived in the port of São Luís, 90% of which came from Lisbon and the rest from Oporto.
São Luís also received, but in much smaller quantities, tiles from France, Belgium and Germany.
The application of tiles on façades is done in full, partial or isolated adornments.
The tiling is usually on the main façade (including the front of the belvederes), but some corner properties also have a side façade with full or partial tiling.
The tiles covering the façades are of the carpet or plain type, made using the stamp, decal, relief and marbling techniques.
Most patterns define the composition with the repetition (with rotation) of four pieces, but there are patterns in which the composition is defined in a single piece.
Most of the tiles that arrived in Maranhão are 13.5 cm x 13.5 cm. The trimmings have dimensions of around 6.75 cm x 13.5 cm (friezes), with a corner piece measuring 6.75 cm x 6.75 cm and surrounds measuring 13.5 cm x 13.5 cm.
Some tiles due to their geometric design structure allow for variations in the composition of the carpet.
In São Luís, the configuration or positioning of the “tile pieces on the façades acquired peculiar characteristics due to the various ways of applying a standard unit, thus appearing different compositions of carpets of the same tile”.
The production of manufactured tiles depended on the technical resources available.
Thus, the chromatic and surface irregularities resulting from the clay compositions, the manual skill for moulding, glazing and decoration, and the control of firing, would only be overcome with mechanisation.
The biscuits were moulded by pressing the clay into wooden moulds. Dried in the shade and after a first batch, the biscuits were glazed with lead oxide and tin, making the surface white and opaque.
Once decorated, they were baked for a second time, during which the pigments and the base glaze melted into the surface.
Eventually a third soft firing might be required.
Subjected to temperatures of up to 1000°C, cracks and deformations were inevitable. Improvement was sought with slow and uniform firing and the selection of clays capable of better performance to the contractions and dilations resulting from sudden temperature variations.
The Industrial Revolution brought about the production of tiles on a commercially advantageous scale, contributing to the exhaustion of the artisanal process. Paints, prints and materials were also produced mechanically.
However, despite the importance of mechanisation, the tiles produced in this way have never been as fascinating as the manufactured ones, in which the irregularities or imperfections of each piece give them notable particularity.
Curiously, the greater the technological development, the less aesthetic the result of serial production.
Tiles come in a variety of shapes, sizes, ornamentation and manufacturing techniques. They are made up of a support or biscuit and a finishing surface, flat or relief, and adorned or not with decorative motifs.
Most of the tiles that arrived in Maranhão are 13.5cm x 13.5cm. Some are rectangular and bevelled, measuring 9.25cm x 18.5cm or 11.8cm x 18.4cm.
The trims have two basic formats: with dimensions around 6.75cm x 13.5cm and corner of 6.75cm x 6.75cm, or 13.5cm x 13.5cm and corner with the same dimensions.
Apart from the figurative panels and tiles designed for specific locations, the vast majority of the tiles are structured in single or grouped figures, through the decomposition of the square into rectangles, triangles and circles.
They have ornamental schemes of Renaissance and Mannerist origin. In many cases, the compositions result from the union of four identical pieces.
Others are completed in two pieces, with the ornament folded back to form a composition of four elements. Few have independent ornaments.
Some allow for variations in composition.
Among the industrially produced ones are mechanical embossings.
Others, rectangular, together with the recurved cornerstones, are also of industrial production from the middle of the last century. Some are reliefs, possibly produced by the Massarelos Factory in Porto or the Devezas Factory in Vila Nova da Gaia.
The reliefs could be obtained by pressing clay into wooden negatives, or liquid clay into plaster moulds.