Among the many mediums found in Florentine art is glazed terra cotta. Since the 15th century, it has been used to fashion portrait busts and wall ornaments, and other decorative items.
When exposed to firing temperatures in excess of 600°C, terra cotta increases its durability and, although still porous, becomes somewhat waterproof. Terra cotta can be compared to earthenware. Earthenware is composed of sedimentary clays, which contain many organic and mineral impurities. It is these that determine the characteristic color of the clay. The color most commonly associated with terra cotta is a rich red-brown, due to the presence of iron oxide, and when fired in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, produces the distinctive red color. The presence of other minerals, the firing temperature and the atmosphere in the kiln all contribute to the final shade of terracotta, which can range from dark brown to pink, buff, tan, orange or even green.
Sculptors are attracted to terra cotta as a medium because it can be worked with great speed, often resulting in a spontaneity that can be lost in the more laborious processes involved in bronze casting or carving stone. Clay also permits an extraordinarily fine degree of detail.
The most widespread technique for finishing terracotta sculpture has always been polychrome. Color is applied, usually over an initial gesso layer, by the modeler himself or by a specialized painter. Sometimes gilding is added, giving the piece a richly extravagant effect. Terracotta finishes can also simulate precious materials such as bronze, marble or gold. The glazed terracotta technique, first applied to sculpture by Luca della Robbia in the 1440s is still widely imitated up until the present day.
As I walk past the many shops that offer these pieces for sale, I think, “It’s not THAT big… I could carry that plaque / vase / bust …” Jorge reminds me of the other items that will also require hand carrying during the return trip to Mexico – on the train, a couple of taxis, through three BIG airports… and I restrain myself. But the lovely Florentine terra cotta will continue to feature prominently in my dreams…