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terra-cotta (tĕr´ə kŏt´ə) [Ital.,=baked earth], form of hard-baked pottery, widely used in the decorative arts, especially as an architectural material, either in its natural red-brown color, or painted, or with a baked glaze.

The Ancient World

The prevalence of terra-cotta as a medium of artistic expression since the earliest periods of history is indicated by statuettes and vases from predynastic Egypt, polychrome tiles from Assyria and Persia, vases and figures from various Central American pre-Columbian sites, and Chinese vases dating probably from 3000 BC Terra-cotta first gained importance as an architectural material in classical Greece, where, beginning about the 7th cent. BC, temples and other structures were often enriched with roof tiles, metopes, acroteria, and various other modeled and painted ornamental features of terra-cotta. Similar roof tiles and ornaments are found in Etruscan and Roman work.

Renaissance Terra-cotta

The golden age of terra-cotta was the Renaissance; it was widely used in N Italy and in N Germany, both of which have a scarcity of good building stone. The towns of Lombardy, Emilia, and Venetia are rich in brick buildings (e.g., the Certosa di Pavia, begun 1396) that are decorated with a profusion of molded terra-cotta detail, such as cornices, stringcourses, window frames, and other exterior ornament. Similarly, the 14th- and 15th-century brick Gothic buildings of N Germany, especially of the district around Brandenburg, had lavish displays of molded terra-cotta. The delicate tracery and other Gothic details of the Church of St. Catherine at Brandenburg (1400) testify to the high technical skill of the artisans of that period.

As the Renaissance progressed in Italy, terra-cotta was established not only as an architectural but also as a sculptural material, used with consummate skill by Della Quercia. In its decorative application, it reached distinction in the 15th cent. when the Della Robbia family developed their characteristic and celebrated polychrome enameled terra-cotta reliefs. In addition to magnificent doorway tympana and decorative medallions, especially the series of Madonna compositions, they used terra-cotta for tombs, fountains, and altars. The material was also favored for bozzetti, or sculptors' sketches, as well as for large pieces.

From Italy terra-cotta work spread to other countries, largely through the activities of migrant Italian artisans. The Château Madrid, now destroyed, designed by Girolamo della Robbia and built for Francis I, was richly decorated with terra-cotta details. The art was introduced (c.1510) into Tudor England, probably by the Florentine sculptor Torrigiano. In the districts of SE England, where good stone is lacking, important country mansions (such as Layer Marney and Sutton Place) had ornamental detail of molded terra-cotta; on Hampton Court, Wolsey employed Italian workmen, who produced portrait medallions and other decorations of merit. In general the use of terra-cotta in England ceased after the death of Henry VIII, when the Italian artists returned home. Later, the 18th-century French sculptors Pigalle, Houdon, and Clodion produced figurines that are outstanding examples of terra-cotta sketches.

Modern Uses

In modern times terra-cotta was used in the Victorian Gothic revival, notably by Alfred Waterhouse, and received widespread application in the United States as an exterior covering for the skeleton steel structure. It was used with consummate skill by Louis Sullivan for decorative stringcourses on many of his buildings. Modern sculptors who made notable terra-cotta works include Maillol, Despiau, Epstein, and Picasso. Terra-cotta has often been molded into the forms of the classical and other styles, with textures closely simulating various kinds of stone. However, it has been most successfully used not imitatively but on its own merits as a lightweight, nonbearing material, perfectly adapted to the task of sheathing a steel frame. Hollow blocks or tiles of rough terra-cotta are used extensively as a structural material for walls and partitions, for floor arches, and for fireproofing.

In modern practice terra-cotta is manufactured from carefully selected clays, which, combined with water and vitrifying ingredients, are put through a pug mill 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.


See I. C. Hill, Decorated Architectural Terracottas (1929); F. Nicholson, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Pottery (1965); A. von Wuthenau, Art of Terracotta Pottery in Pre-Columbian Central and South America (1969).

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terracotta. Hard unglazed pottery (the term means ‘baked’ (cooked) ‘earth’) of which decorative tiles, architectural enrichment, statuary, urns, etc., or even components for whole façades are made. It should be distinguished from faïence. Widely used in Antiquity, notably by the Greeks and Etruscans, it was also employed in Islamic buildings, but its use in Europe was revived in the medieval period, especially where brick was used (e.g. in Northern Germany). A major revival occurred during C19, when terracotta was manufactured on a huge scale. The Church of St Stephen, Lever Bridge, Bolton, Lancs. (1836–45), designed by Edmund Sharpe (1809–77), was built entirely of terracotta, and a widespread use of the material was prompted by Prince Albert's admiration of German experiments and by the publication (1867) of The Terra Cotta Architecture of North Italy, edited and illustrated by the Prince's artistic adviser, Professor Ludwig Grüner (1801–82). Important instances in which terracotta was used include parts of the South Kensington Museum (1856–65), by Fowke, H. Y. D. Scott, and Godfrey Sykes (1824–66), the Huxley Building, Exhibition Road, Kensington (1867–71—by Scott and Wild), the Royal Albert Hall (1867–71—by Fowke and Scott), and the Rathaus, Berlin (1861–9), by Hermann Friedrich Waesemann (1813–79). Waterhouse was one of the many architects who employed terracotta for whole façades (e.g. the Gothic Prudential Assurance Building, Holborn (1878–1906), and the Free Rundbogenstil Congregationalist Churches at Lyndhurst Road, Hampstead (1883), and King's Weigh House, Duke Street, Mayfair (1889–91), all in London). Terracotta was widely used in the USA: its fireproof qualities and decorative possibilities commended it for cladding skyscrapers, and many such were finished with the glazed and coloured version of terracotta, known as faïence (e.g. Wrigley Building, Chicago, IL (1919–24) ).


C. Elliott (1992);
M. Stratton (1993);
Jane Turner (1996);
N. Winter (1993)

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ter·ra cot·ta / ˈterə ˈkätə/ (also ter·ra·cot·ta) • n. unglazed, typically brownish-red earthenware, used chiefly as an ornamental building material and in modeling. ∎  a statuette or other object made of such earthenware. ∎  a strong brownish-red or brownish-orange color.

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terracotta Hard, porous, usually unglazed, yellow, brown or red earthenware (fired clay). Terracotta is used in building, sculpture and pottery. See also ceramic