What Gives Terracotta its Name?

Clay, one of the oldest building materials, has been in constant use since prehistoric times. Artefacts or buildings built using clay gained substance and durability when baked and that’s how baked clay (or terracotta) came into vogue. Due to its lightweight nature, it has been extensively used for architectural purposes across the world.

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.

We see the presence of Terracotta in Greek temple decorations (architecture). In Roman architecture, terracotta reliefs were a common feature. Terracotta saw its revival during the period of Italian Renaissance and witnessed a further overhaul in the 19th century.

It is said that Terracotta was first used in prehistoric art. This is exemplified in the Venus of Dolby Vestonice (26,000-24,000 BCE), discovered under a layer of ash at a paleolithic encampment in Moravia. What gives Terracotta its name? It is best described as dry clay which is baked in a kiln or atop combustible material in a pit, at a typical firing temperature of around 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), though in historic and archaeological cases, it may be as low as 600 °C (1,112 °F). Terracotta originates literally from the Italian translation: ‘baked’ or ‘cooked earth’. In other words, this word was borrowed from Italian vocabulary: terra (“earth”) + cotta (“baked”). Terracotta clays are often rich in iron and are made from a type of porous clay. Terracotta articles are cheap, durable and versatile. This ceramic art form continues to be vastly used today.

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