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4 Types of terracotta, what is it and how has it been used throughout history?

What is Terracotta? While it may seem like a pretty straightforward answer, there are many different ways terracotta can be used, and a lot to understand about the material, and where it comes from. Keep reading to discover the history, make-up, origins, and uses of terracotta. 

Terracotta is a refractory clay product used for making Terracotta tiles and Terracotta bricks. Terracotta has been in use since ancient times, viz. in Chinese Pottery (from 10,000 BCE), in Greek Pottery (from 7,000 BCE), and in Mesopotamian and Egyptian arts and sculptures. They were also seen in Minoan art from Crete and Italian Etruscan art. Terracotta pottery is made by baking terracotta clay. In fact, the word “terracotta” comes from the Italian words for “baked earth.” Makes sense, right? You may also hear “terracotta“ used to describe color. The terracotta color is a natural brown-orange. Perhaps one of the most spectacular terracotta creations ever is the Terracotta Army. This huge group of terracotta sculptures represents the armies of Qin Shi Huang. He was the first Emperor of China. The sculptures were found in 1974 by Chinese farmers as they dug a well.

History of Terracotta

Ever since the era of Mesopotamian art along the Tigris and Euphrates, and Egyptian art along the Nile, terracotta bricks and tiles have been used for centuries in the building of domestic as well as civic structures. Terracotta was widely used in ancient art, notably in Chinese Pottery (from 10,000 BCE) and in Greek Pottery (from 7,000 BCE), as well as Mesopotamian sculpture and Egyptian sculpture, plus Minoan art from Crete, and Etruscan art on the Italian mainland. Terracotta statues were prevalent in Greek architecture – notably for temple decoration – while terracotta reliefs were a common feature of Roman architecture. The art of terracotta was revived during the Italian Renaissance, and underwent a further revival during the 19th century.

Terracotta was first used in Prehistoric art, as exemplified by the remarkable Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000-24,000 BCE), found buried in a layer of ash at a paleolithic encampment in Moravia.  The Venus is a sculpture of a woman, which definitely still appears as a woman, but is fairly abstracted, and worn over time. Paleolithic terracotta figures were fired in primitive kilns, created underneath open fires. Famous terracotta figurines from the era of Neolithic art include: The Enthroned Goddess Figurine (c.6,000 BCE) from Catalhuyuk, Anatolia, and The Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE) from the lower Danube region in Romania. Bronze and Iron Age artists continued the terracotta tradition, see, for instance, the female fertility cult figures unearthed at Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan (3000-1500 BCE), and The Burney Relief (c.1950 BCE) from Ancient Mesopotamia. In China, potters and sculptors have proved equally skilful with clay. Early Egyptian, Minoan, Mycenean, Greek and Etruscan cultures, from around the Mediterranean, all employed terracotta for figurative works – such as the Tanagra Figurines from Boeotia in central Greece – and for various types of decorative art and architectural ornamentation. It was widely used by sculptors during the era of Hellenistic art (323-30 BCE), in particular. It was also used in Early Christian art, for tomb reliefs (from c.200 CE).

Terracotta was also popular in sub-Saharan African sculpture: it was first developed by the mysterious Nok culture of Nigeria, about 1000 BCE, and by the Igbo culture of eastern Nigeria. It was also a feature of Pre-Columbian art, beginning with the Olmec culture (1000-500 BCE). Following the collapse of the Roman Empire (c.450), the use of terracotta declined dramatically. It wasn’t until the Early Renaissance that it was properly revived as an artistic medium. Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti were among the first Renaissance sculptors to rediscover the potential of terracotta for making images of Christian art (notably that of the Virgin and Child): a discovery which came about through their close knowledge of bronze sculpture – the use of clay being central to the production of bronze statues. Before long, clay was being molded to replicate devotional images, and other figures, which were then fired, painted and gilded, thus creating a low-cost alternative to more expensive materials, like marble and bronze. Other artists, including the Della Robbia family, popularized the use of glazed terracotta for relief sculpture and church altarpiece art. See, for instance, the pulpit reliefs for Santa Croce in Florence (1481), by the Florentine artist Benedetto da Maiano. Terracotta was also used in Renaissance portrait art, as exemplified by the wonderful Bust of Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici (later Pope Leo X) by Antonio de’ Benintendi. Terracotta models were also used by most sculptors when submitting designs, or when creating studies for larger sculptures or for paintings. In short, Renaissance sculpture re-established terracotta as a major medium of artistic expression and creativity. During the era of Baroque sculpture, the tradition was further developed by Bernini (1598-80) and Alessandro Algardi(1598-1654), notably in the area of relief sculpture and portrait busts. During the 18th century, terracotta was explored for its decorative qualities, while the great Antonio Canova (1757-1822) continued to use it for models, until he replaced it with plaster in the early 19th century. 

During the 1860s in England and the 1870s in America, architects began using unglazed terracotta to decorate the exterior surfaces of buildings. It was used, for instance, on a number of buildings in Birmingham; on the elaborate terracotta facade of the Natural History Museum, in London; the Victoria and Albert Museum (1859–71); and the Royal Albert Hall (1867–71). Earlier, in 1842-45, St Stephen and All Martyrs’ Church, at Lever Bridge in Bolton had been built almost entirely from terracotta. Curiously, terracotta received approval as a building material from the Arts and Crafts movement, since it was deemed to be a handmade material, designed by craftsmen. If you want to learn more about the Arts and Crafts movement, check out our article on the subject. In America, the Chicago School of architecture was an early convert to terracotta. The architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), for instance, was noted for his elaborate glazed terracotta decorations, that would have been extremely difficult to produce in any other medium. Fired clay was also used by Chicago designers Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Root (1850-91) in the curtain walls of their Reliance Building (1895), and by William Le Baron Jenney who pioneered its use in skyscrapers as a way of reducing the risk of fire.

What is Terracotta made of ? How was it Invented?

terra-cotta, (Italian: “baked earth”) literally, any kind of fired clay but, in general usage, a kind of object—e.g., vessel, figure, or structural form—made from fairly coarse, porous clay that when fired assumes a colour ranging from dull ochre to red and usually is left unglazed. Most terra-cotta has been of a utilitarian kind because of its cheapness, versatility, and durability. Limitations in the basic materials often cause a superficial similarity between simply made works as far separated by time and distance as early Greece and the modern cultures of Latin America. Terracotta clay has a high iron oxide content.  It is this that gives it its distinctive red color.  The iron is also partially why terracotta is a low fire clay.  It’s also why it is porous when fired. Terracotta clay is either dug up from the ground and then processed.  Or it can be manufactured by combining different raw materials.  Formulated clay like this is put together using a specific recipe that I’ll say a bit more about later.   Clay forms underground over many thousands of years.  It is a combination of rock that has been worn to sediment by the elements, plus other minerals. When rock is ground away from its source by the wind and rain it sometimes collects at its point of origin.  Sediment that collects at its point of origin and turns to clay is called primary clay. However, most rock sediment is moved by water and wind and collects at a different location.  On its journey, it picks up impurities and contaminants.  This is known as secondary clay.  It contrasts with primary clay which is quite pure and uncontaminated. Terracotta is a good example of a secondary clay because it contains many contaminants and impurities.  One of it’s key components is iron oxide.  When terracotta is fired, its iron content interacts with the oxygen in the kiln and creates the distinctive red color. Not all terracotta is red, some are grey or buff-colored when it is unfired.  Most terracotta is red-burning, which means that it is red or orange-brown when it’s been fired.  However, some fired terracotta has brown or pink hues.

Iron functions as a flux.  A flux is an oxide that lowers the temperature at which a mixture of materials will melt.  Clay contains glass-forming ingredients like silica.  When the clay is fired, these glass formers melt and fill up the spaces between the clay particles. It is this process that enables clay to become non-porous once fired.  The molten glass cools as the kiln cools, and the pores in the clay remain closed.  This process is called vitrification. So, a certain amount of melting is valuable when clay is being fired.  But all clay has a temperature at which the actual clay body will melt once it has become too hot.  This temperature varies between different types of clay. Because terracotta contains iron and other fluxing ingredients, it will melt at a lower temperature than stoneware or porcelain. Terracotta contains fewer glass-forming materials than other clays.  However, it does contain some and will vitrify a bit when fired. Vitrification, meaning solidification, makes the clay less porous and stronger.  When terracotta is fired it can become partially vitrified.  However, once it is partially vitrified, if the temperature in the kiln keeps increasing, the clay body will start to suffer. 

As stated above, terracotta can be dug up from the ground and processed.  Or it can be formulated using particular raw materials.  The latter method is good for potters who need their clay to have very particular properties. Fired terracotta clay is more porous than stoneware or porcelain.  When ceramics are fired to ‘maturity’ it means that they have become as dense and strong as they can be.  Mature stoneware and porcelain are impervious to water.  By contrast, well-fired terracotta is still absorbent. The color depends not only on the type of clay found in the beds of the water bodies in the area where the artist is based but also on the firing process. For example, if the smoke from firing is allowed to get out through the vents in the kiln, a red or orange color is obtained. On the other hand, if the vents are sealed, it gives the items a black color. Decorative pieces are either left with their original color or painted in multiple hues to make them more attractive. Terracotta items, when not cracked, give a ring when struck lightly with fingers.

Contemporary Applications

1. Tiles 

You’re probably familiar with the Spanish use of terracotta tiles on roofs, and floors. They have different effects, but the same warm feeling both inside and out. Those tiles, known by many names including Spanish tiles, barrel tiles, thigh tiles or tejas curvas, are an iconic feature of homes in Spain and across the Mediterranean. Their golden glow perfectly sets off the pale walls, and harmoniously ties every building into its neighbours and their surrounding scenery. Traditionally these roof tiles would have been made from clay, shaped into a curve over a barrel or sometimes a crafter’s upper leg (hence their names). Once fired, they would be laid on a roof in alternating concave and convex positions, creating the beautiful, rippling texture of the Spanish roof we know and love. Traditional tiles are now much harder to come by. While it may look like every Mediterranean home has a terracotta red roof, many of these tiles will be shaped in a way to make their production and installation easier. Terracotta tiles are impervious, cheap and hard, a great choice for the inside flooring of homes as well. 

2. Plant Pots

The most traditional of flower pots is the classic terra cotta. Its sheer earthiness makes terra cotta the natural choice to anchor any plant. Plastic and fiberglass flowerpots are increasingly popular, but terra cotta has a long timeline in human history and a place in the gardener’s heart.Ancient Egyptians and Romans are reported to have put plants in pots. Flower pot use blossomed as Europeans explored the world in search of new herbs, spices, flowers, and trees. Explorer- scientists like Thomas Nuttall brought amazing plant discoveries to England. The use of “rude” terra cotta flourished as more common citizens caught the botany bug. Terra cotta flower pots were, and still are, produced in many countries. As we gardeners know, sometimes to our dismay, clay is found almost everywhere.

3. Bricks

Architectural terracotta refers to a fired mixture of clay and water that can be used in a non-structural, semi-structural, or structural capacity on the exterior or interior of a building. Indian terracotta manufacturers hand pressed, poured, and double-molded the clay mix. Plaster casts have been found in several ancient sites in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. There is a long tradition of making bricks from terracotta, and some incredibly beautiful buildings in the region. Though the earliest bricks made of clay were left to bake in the sun, the practice has evolved quite a bit. Englishmen Richard Holt and Thomas Ripley patented an artificial stone recipe in 1722. The business was fairly successful at making small architectural ornaments. They popularized the grey mix of terracotta as an alternative to stone with the help of architects like Horace Walpole and Sir John Soane. Georgian architectural style was in vogue and demand for repetitive, classically inspired décor was very fashionable. The Victoria and Albert Museum (1867–1880) and the Natural History Museum of London (1879–1880) buildings ushered in an era of mass-produced architectural terracotta.

4. Sculptures

Terra Cotta was one of the original materials used to create sculpture. Visiting China to see the Terracotta Army for any potter is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Located 23 miles from Xian City, it’s the largest imperial tomb in the country, covers a vast 558 acres and has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London also has some brilliant examples, including a Pierre Merard bust. Then the Vienna Natural History Museum is home to the reported oldest surviving piece of work in the ceramic world dating back to 26,000 BCE; a figurine called The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which was found in the Czech Republic. Terra Cotta was also used in the turn of the century in the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Art Nouveau movement as decoration on both interior and exterior of buildings. In this way, it was something between sculpture and architectural feature. West Bengal has a rich tradition of art and craft and terracotta is one of them. In fact, rural areas of the state are a treasure trove of finely crafted terracotta pots, figurines including those of handsome horses and other items, small and large, practical as well as decorative. Through their masterful control of material and a superb sense of artistry, Italian sculptors have explored the versatility of terracotta to create some of the most alluring and expressive sculptures in the history of art. In the hands of Donatello and his contemporaries in early 15th-century Italy, terracotta became a fundamental medium of artistic expression and creativity, and remained so until the age of Antonio Canova in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Skill in handling clay became a requirement at art academies across Europe; the development of new technologies fed the demand for clay sculpture, and clay models took on a central role in portraiture and relief sculpture. Clay was essential to the creative process of sculpture during this period, and many other periods throughout history.

Terracotta is such a wide ranging material, used in building, art and for practical day to day objects. It is amazing because it is from the earth, and such a versatile material. It’s natural colours are beautiful, and have defined the cityscapes of many Spanish towns, as well as Indian cities and villages. Creating beauty with a lump of clay, a wheel, a kiln, and the pressure and dexterity of the artisan’s hands is what terracotta art is all about. The artisans, often uneducated and leading a simple life, nonetheless create magic which entices locals and tourists alike. Clay is an inexpensive and abundant material that has been used since ancient times to make bricks, tiles, pottery, and ritual objects. When fired, clay becomes terracotta, or ‘baked earth’. In modern practice terra-cotta is manufactured from carefully selected clays, which combined with water and vitrifying ingredients, are put through a pug mill (mixer) or other device to reduce the mass to homogeneity. In cakes of convenient size the clay passes to the molding room. Individual pieces are modeled by hand; in the case of repetitive pieces, the clay is pressed into plaster molds to form a shell. The molded pieces are finished by hand and then are ready for baking in a kiln or reverberatory furnace. There are many products that are also marketed as terracotta that are in fact made with different materials, but just use the name to refer to the colour, and potentially a style. There are many ways you can incorporate it into your home, from the interior to the exterior, and from antique to modern.