The Holiday Card
In June of 2018, I restored an historic fountain at our embassy in Lisbon. Though pleased with the outcome, I never imagined who else might notice!
In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife visited the embassy. They were so impressed by the fountain that he and his wife chose it for the cover of their holiday card which went out to all State Department employees and contractors.
Decades of iron, calcium, lime and old darkened sealer heavily stained the antique tiles and marble features of the fountain. Plus, the plumbing leaked and the walkway around the fountain, made of white limestone, had darkened with moss and mold.
Not knowing the best technique for cleaning antique tile, I sought guidance from one of Portugal’s leading handmade tile manufacturers, Viuva Lamego. Seeing my interpreter and surmising that I did not speak Portuguese, the director turned to me and tapped his teeth!
Like Cleaning Teeth
This was my introduction to the fine art of cleaning antique tile. It’s like cleaning teeth, and the best equipment for the job are dental tools. You can scrape the tile with metal and you won’t damage it at all. Just don’t tap or press on the surface or it will crack.
The careful work took several days followed by training for embassy staff so that they can wipe the fountain surfaces once a week to keep it looking fresh.
So, what’s the age of the fountain and who’s the face?
The property was a farm that goes way back: pre-16th century. It is one of the few that survived the great Portuguese earthquake in the early 1700s.
The property was then bought by a rich family who rebuilt and expanded the farm estate in the late 1700s. This is when the handmade tile was added, including what you see on the fountain. So, we know the date of the tile: late 18th century. The marble face and shell may be older.
The US State Dept bought the property in the 1980s, built the embassy, and restored several of the most important buildings. This fountain was moved at that time from another location on the farm. Extensive tile restoration was done at that time, most likely including the sealant that over time turned black.
This was my first visit to Portugal and I soon learned that ceramic tile, particularly the blue and white pattern covering this fountain, has a special place in the history of this country. Nearly every building in Lisbon is covered with them, and you can tell how old a building is just by the tile pattern.
The Moors introduced Islamic art and mosaic tile to the Iberian peninsula, now Portugal, in the 8th century. The story goes that the Portuguese King Manuel I was awestruck by the beauty of Moorish tile when he visited the Alhambra Palace in southern Spain. He immediately ordered that his palace in Portugal be similarly decorated. And so 'azulejos', originally white and blue ceramic tiles, were fully embraced by the Portugese even after the Moors were driven from Portugal in 15th century.