Earth and Fire

153 Earth and FireGoing through history, we see the Moors had a great influence in Europe, especially to the south and in Spain and Portugal, in particular. They invaded most of Southern Europe starting from the Iberian Peninsula in 711. In the course of 3 years they managed to conquer the whole peninsula (including both countries) stretching the borders beyond it. Thus they formed the third largest Moorish Caliphate of that time (after Syria and Egypt) with the capital city of Córdoba. The Moors remained on the peninsula for about 800 years and there is no doubt they left great marks as well as they influenced enormously over the cuisine, architectural styles, art, crafts, painted ceramic tile-work, etc., in the Iberian Peninsula and southern Europe. That’s why we have still been able to find the Moorish heritage mainly in Spain and Portugal, also in numerous southern parts of Italy as well as in the distant lands of the New World (in Mexico and Brazil, in particular). I will try to tell you a few things about the marvellous ceramic tile-work (Azulejo) and Talavera pottery in this post which greatly impressed me when I was in Seville and Lisbon. So, off we go to the world of tile and pottery art in which Moorish, European and the age-old techniques of the Olmecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations have a crossing point.

When you are either in Seville or Lisbon, you will find out a great number of colourful (mainly in blue) tin-glazed tiles as an exterior and interior decoration of palaces, public buildings, ordinary houses, churches and monasteries. They are called azulejos (actually, azulejo or also known as North African mosaics resembled the ancient Roman ones) and are not only decorative ornaments but they also have a practical function to control the temperature in these buildings. The name itself is of Arab origin and it derives from the two words az-zulayj (“little stone”) and zellige (“polished stone”). The 13th century Moorish tin-glazed tiles with geometric and floral motifs have still been available in the Alhambra Alcázar of Granada up to now.

The Italians had a specific tin-glazed ceramic pottery called maiolica during the Renaissance, more specifically in the 14th century. Italian Renaissance potters ornamented historical and legendary scenes in bright colours on a white background. The name maiolica comes from the name of the island of Majorca that was a harbour on the import route of wares from Valencia to Italy. These wares were produced by local Moorish potters on the island who had worked and accumulated experience in Sicily, actually.

Two centuries later, in the 16th century, Italian potters settled down in Seville and they brought their maiolica techniques to Spain and thus the Italian polychrome (multi-colour) tile panels rounded out the Hispano-Moresque tile industry with more figurative and allegorical themes and colours. By the way, Italian potter Francisco Niculoso had the greatest merit in that because he was the first to settle down in Seville in 1498 and his masterpieces have still been seen in the Seville Alcázar.

As to Portugal, she relied on Spain entirely and imported azulejos and later maiolica-style polychrome tile panels from there in the 15th and 16th centuries. Flemish artists in Lisbon started the production of such tiles on their own in the mid of the 16th century (to be more specific – in 1550) and thus tile industry in Portugal developed and flourished step-by-step. In the 17th century Portugal became an independent manufacturer of tin-glazed tiles and an exporter to the Azores & Madeira and later – to Brazil.

Now, let’s get back to Spain. What did the Spaniards do after the introduction of maiolica techniques? Of course, Spanish conquistadors brought them to Nueva España in the 16th century. By the way, New Spain comprised Mexico, Central America without Brazil, the Caribbean basin and La Florida from 1521-1522 till 1821 when Mexico became independent. These maiolica techniques also included the other type of maiolica earthenware, i.e. Talavera pottery, inherited from the Moors as well. I am opening a bracket here. Today’s city of Talavera de la Reina in the province of Toledo is supposed to have been the birthplace of fine art Talavera pottery whose specific pottery methods were developed by the Moors as well and it was later combined with maiolica style, thus becoming a type of maiolica earthenware. The bracket closed.

So, during the first century of the colonial period (i.e. in the 16th century) the Spaniards introduced Talavera pottery to Mexico and more specifically to the city of Puebla. Immediately after the establishment of the city in 1531, Talavera pottery flourished there due to two facts. Firstly, there was a great abundance of high-quality natural clay there. Secondly, Moorish Talavera pottery techniques were blended with the age-old primitive firing and colouring techniques of the local artisans who inherited them from the Olmecs through the centuries. (Just imagine pottery was central part of the Olemcs and other Mesoamerican civilizations in Mexico between 600AD and 1200BC). Native Mexican potters didn’t really use the potter’s wheel. They didn’t tin-glaze their earthenware either. But the blend between their unique pottery methods and the skills in maiolica pottery of the craftsmen who came from the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina resulted in one thing. The first workshop for the production of the finest ceramics and tiles was established in Puebla in the 16th century.

In the beginning only the finest ceramic was coloured in blue because obtaining this colour from the mineral pigments was very expensive. This way colourful works of lesser quality could be easily differentiated from fine ceramics. But artisans started mixing and broadening colour designs by adding green, yellow, red and mauve to the blue colour in the 18th century. And thus nowadays we have Talavera Poblana works like tiles, plates, vases jars, pots, religious and other figures, animals and so on, and so forth, in extremely vibrant and vivid colours. Also delicate handmade details on fine, semi-fine masterpieces and pottery items for a daily use have always been the trademarks of Talavera pottery, its distinctive style and characteristics of excellence.

Finally, I will add one more thing. This master and very durable Talavera earthenware produced at extremely high temperatures is always associated with the city of Puebla which is recognized as the official centre of Talavera pottery worldwide. Ironically or not, the term Talavera is more widely-spread in Puebla in the New World than in its counterpart – Talavera de la Reina on the Old Continent. Moreover, Talavera Poblana is extremely popular all over the world. It’s a synonym of uniqueness and excellence in Talavera pottery. And all this is due to two facts. In the first place, approved clay sites are only few in number and are located only in the Puebla area. In the second place, strict and complex fabrication techniques and processes have been followed since the 16th century.


4 thoughts on “Earth and Fire

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