Lime is limestone in its liquid state, used as paint or plaster since the beginning of time. In the Lascaux caves, there are rock paintings that indicate lime was used by artists 16.000 years ago. The Cheops Pyramid, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Great Wall of China, also contain lime, agglutinating.
We don’t need to go so far back to remember the day when Felismina Ramalho’s mother initiated her in communal whitewashing. «I was 12 years old. It was a task performed only by women and passed down from generation to generation. All my life, I remember my grandmothers, aunts and my mother doing this job.»
Our encounter with Felismina, a seasonal painter with her paintbrush in hand, took place in Casas Novas de Mares, a small village in the Alandroal council. This was where we were treated to a mini-workshop in the art of whitewashing. Despite this place’s name (New Houses by the Sea), the salty ocean is far from here. While the Alqueva dam is just minutes away.
Water is one of the fundamental elements to mix limestone. «The lime comes in rocks and is melted in a bucket or can of cold water. We add rock by rock, because it will bubble and burn. We stir the lime to dissolve it well, otherwise it forms stones and sand on the bottom and can’t be used.»
48 hours later, it has turned into ‘lime milk’ and can be used to paint, with thick paint brushes and brooms distributed among the whitewashers. However, the “teacher” Felismina thinks the raw material should settle for longer.
«Once melted, it should be stored for 3 weeks before painting. It is even better to let the lime dissolve from one year to the next. It shouldn’t be used on walls that are very cold or very hot, or in the rain. Rain washes away the lime. And the sun blisters the wall.»
Like many other Alentejo tasks, it is best to begin whitewashing at dawn.
«The best is on a cool morning. First, one coat is applied to the wall, you wait for it to dry and then paint again. In the end, the wall is smooth, really white.»
Lime is also a reflection of Alentejo patience, because every step has its own pace, from preparing to drying. In the end there is the reward of whiteness, light, texture and purification (when it solidifies, lime absorbs the carbon dioxide in the air).
White lime paints the Alentejo horizon and encourages ancient gestures to be repeated as a family. The Beja Municipality is preparing an application for the activity associated with artisanal lime kilns to be classified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Traditionally, it was men who cooked the lime and took it from the kilns to pass on to the women. Lime kiln tenders and whitewashers complemented each other. However, lime kilns fell into disuse and now only a handful of men master this technique.
If anyone took the trouble to scrape one of these whitewashed walls, they would discover the lives, songs and conversations that lie beneath, truly a layered family album handed down from one generation to the next.
«Until it was my turn and, although today it isn’t used as much, my daughter alson knows how to do it. This is still how we paint our home.»
Live lime, virgin lime or simply lime, paints and unites, walls and people, those are its major qualities, honoured by Felismina and Monte Velho
*Moda do Entrudo, song by Zeca Afonso inspired by Cancioneiro Popular Português (Portuguese folk songbook)