My Portugal Series - Christine Chitnis
Welcome to the February edition of My Portugal, our newsletter series where we explore Portuguese culture through interviews with friends of Portugalia Marketplace. We're thrilled to introduce you to our next guest:
Photographer, journalist, and author Christine Chitnis focuses on connecting culture and history through the visual world, which is evident in her books, the best-selling Patterns of India (Clarkson Potter, 2020) and the new Patterns of Portugal (Clarkson Potter, 2024). Christine contributes to Condé Nast Traveler, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, and Travel + Leisure.
Shop Christine's Latest Book: Patterns of Portugal:
Portugalia Marketplace: Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, Patterns of Portugal. What inspired you to choose Portugal as the subject of this book, and what were some of the highlights of your time in the country shooting and researching?
Christine Chitnis: As is the case with so much of my work, this book is personal in nature. I am drawn to stories that help us understand our interconnectedness. While writing my last book, Patterns of India, I began researching the family history of my husband, Vijay. Blanche Coutinho, Vijay’s mother, was a Catholic whose family originated from the Konkan region of India. Portuguese colonization lasted for over 450 years (from 1505 to 1961) in the Konkan region and heavily influenced the culture, architecture, cuisine, and religion. Under the colonial caste system, there were three designations: castiço (Indians who converted to Christianity but had no Portuguese bloodline), mestiço (a blend of Indian and Portuguese), and descendentes (Portuguese who settled in Goa, India). We believe Blanche’s father, Albert, was mestiço, and that Albert’s father was a descendente from Portugal. Our documentation is limited, so we’re relying on family lore and burial locations to try to piece together the lineage. But imagine my shock upon learning my children’s roots possibly include a Portuguese lineage—one that dates back only a few generations. Vijay’s family history offers an example of how colonization not only influences entire cultures, but also impacts one’s understanding of their own family’s history.
This really kicked off my interest in further exploring the culture, history and visuals of Portugal. And of course, as a photographer, I was instantly drawn to Portugal’s unique palette and rich use of pattern.
PM: What elements of Portugal’s design history do you think deserve to be more well-known?
CC: Portugal's rich design history is deeply intertwined with its colonial past and conquests, making it a fascinating melting pot of influences. The exploration and colonization of territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas played a pivotal role in shaping Portuguese design, blending their styles and artisanship with European aesthetics in a unique way.
One notable aspect of Portugal's design history is the integration of Moorish and Islamic influences, which is a legacy of the country's medieval history. This influence is visible in the intricate tilework, or azulejos, that adorns many buildings and surfaces throughout Portugal. The word azulejos is actually Arabic for “little polished stones.” The art of azulejos evolved over centuries and reflects a synthesis of Moorish geometric patterns and vibrant colors with Portuguese themes, creating a distinctive visual identity.
I think this is what makes Portugal, this small country that was once the richest empire in the world, so fascinating; it is a visual tapestry that tells the story of cross-pollination.
PM: Are there any long dormant Portuguese artistic traditions you discovered that you wish were revived?
CC: In the tiny town of Beringel in the Alentejo region, António Mestre continues his work as one of the few master potters in the country who still handcrafts wine amphorae. It is incredibly strenuous and laborious work: he digs the clay from the fields, uses a kick wheel to throw the giant pots, and fires them in a huge kiln that he built and stokes by hand. He has not been able to find an apprentice or anyone interested in learning the tradition from him, and so he fears it will be lost. It would be such a shame because his work is not only beautiful, useful and practical, but it is deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the Alentejo.
PM: What “Patterns of Portugal” can be found in your own home?
CC: I have an ever growing collection of pottery, much of which I bought when I visited the town of Corval, the largest pottery community in Portugal with over 20 artisanal pottery workshops. When I was in the Azores, I also visited Cerâmica Vieira, which has been producing pottery for over 150 years on São Miguel. I bought so many beautiful pieces there, including letter tiles that spell out the names of my three children. Whenever I find Casa Cubista pieces, I can’t help but add those to my collection. It brings me such joy to drink my espresso from little striped Casa Cubista cups every morning. I appreciate that Portugalia has a wonderful selection of their products!
PM: What off-the-beaten-path areas of Portugal would you recommend to see objects highlighted in your book?
CC: In the northern city of Viana do Castelo, the annual Feast of Senhora da Agonia, the pilgrimage and festival of Our Lady of Sorrow, is celebrated every August. Although not “off-the-beaten-path” I think this festival is something that most tourists to Portugal might not know about, and it is absolutely incredible. Well worth the trip. The highlight of the week for textile enthusiasts is the Mordomia Parade, a living ethnographic display of more than six hundred women walking through the streets in traditional festive costumes known as Traje à Vianesa. During your visit you must stop at Viana do Castelo’s Museu do Traje (Costume Museum), which is dedicated to the costumes, artistry and embroidery of the region.
PM: Of all the patterns featured in your book, is there a certain design or bit of architecture that you admired most?
CC: I love the juxtaposition of modern and historic architecture. I remember spending an afternoon at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. Built in the sixteenth century, it is a stunning example of the Portuguese late Gothic style of architecture, known as the Manueline style. From there, I took a short walk to the stunningly modern Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), designed by architect Amanda Levete and opened in 2016. There is this uniquely Portuguese talent for seamlessly merging historic preservation with architectural creativity.
PM: What’s the best way for our followers to stay up to date on your next adventures?