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An exotic legacy: a guide to Moorish art

The influence of the Moors, first felt centuries ago, remains a driving force behind Portugal’s art, architecture and design, as Beth Druce discovers

Beth Druce portrait
Beth Druce,

While many European cities are defined by their towering cathedrals and bold architectural statements, Lisbon’s appeal lies in no small measure with its intricate artistic elements. These stem from the Moorish invasion in 711 of the Iberian peninsula, of which modern-day Portugal is part.

These cultured conquerors from North Africa influenced the art and architecture of Portugal in a way that still defines the mood of this western European city thousands of years later. ‘The streets seem to wear art on every surface,’ as the New York Times observed in 2012. ‘Beaux-Arts buildings are sheeted in Moorish tiles of bright blues and sunset reds; the sidewalks too are covered in mosaics.’

The Moors’ influence, characterised by muqarnas (distinctive three-dimensional decorative features), horseshoe arches and ancient courtyards, can be seen everywhere from ancient buildings such as the São Jorge castle, which sits upon a hilltop in the centre of Lisbon, to the intricate designs of brightly coloured kiosks that sell ice-cream and beer. At the São Vicente de Fora monastery, the tiled walls tell historic tales; azulejos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles) are perhaps the most obvious example of the Moorish influence, an instantly recognisable visual reference associated with the city.

‘Nothing visually defines Lisbon more than its azulejos,’ notes Dana Thomas in the Architectural Digest. Azulejos are found on both the interiors and exteriors of churches and palaces, applied to walls, floors and ceilings. Originally used to document major historical and cultural events, they inject an intricate and colourful element into Lisbon’s cityscape.

Moorish architecture exists outside Lisbon too. In the town of Sintra, north-west of the capital, the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) sits high in the Serra de Sintra mountain range, with a panoramic view of the city below it. The castle is considered one of the most prominent examples of Moorish architecture in existence. This romantic ruin, high on a hill and surrounded by dense green forest, retains a charm and distinctness that’s unique to this period in history.

While visitors to Portugal continue to soak up its striking aesthetic, Moorish design also serves as a huge source of inspiration for Lisbon’s creatives, including its growing community of fashion designers, who reference the Moors’ legacy of varied colours, patterns and textures when developing their creations.

Teresa Martins is the creative director of TMCollection, one of Portugal’s foremost design houses for fashion and interiors. In her autumn/winter 2014 collection, Alma Mater, the clothes examine ethnicity and Portuguese folklore via neat geometric prints that echo tiled mosaic walls, contrasted against heavy swathes of neutrally-toned, earthy fabrics. ‘The patterns were inspired by Portuguese tiles,’ explains Martins, whose colour palette references the warm terracotta of a sun-drenched Portuguese rooftop and whose accessory collection showcases jumbo pendant necklaces that resemble historical artifacts.

Susana Bettancourt’s work displays a similar creative influence. The Azores-born knitwear designer uses high-tech production techniques to create her signature mosaic patterned creations, a favourite with Lady Gaga. For autumn/winter, copper and green-toned triangular shards tesselate to create a focal point on tunics and dresses, while a longline pinafore mimics traditional tile design; the all-over print contrasts blues and greens with browns and golds in a repeated, kaleidoscopic style.

For designer Katty Xiomara it’s about ‘mixing patterns, textures and colours’ and her whimsical, floaty dresses with delicate square-tiled prints in cobalt blue and vivid orange conjure up the brightness of a sunny Portuguese courtyard. ‘I subconsciously like what the past left us and I therefore have the tendency to reinvent,’ says Xiomara.

These designers are united less by the style of their creations than by the shared point of inspiration derived from their country’s past. ‘I think Portugal is unique,’ says Martins. ‘Its multicultural influences are a reflection of its history, and our work is an extension of this.’ The Moorish invasion may have taken place 1,300 years ago but the its influence in fashion and design continue to resonate in Portugal today.



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