Ceramic - Pottery Dictionary

by Susan Mussi

MAJOLICA: 2b - History in Spain

ca: MAJÒLICA: 2b -- La seva Història a Espanya

es: MAYÓLICA: 2b – Su Historia en España

Ceramics have always been popular in Spain and earthenware pottery has existed for thousands of years. First Iberian pottery; later Greek and Roman; then, with the conquest of the Arabs came the methods of Luster and Majolica.

What makes the Majolica method different from others is that bisque (already fired clay) is covered with an opaque glaze-base and decorated with metallic oxide glaze colors. They are both fired togather, this blends the colors that overlap each other forming other colors and the result is a brightly colored, glossy surface that maintains and enhances the lines, colors and quality of the decoration.

The metals used were gold, silver, tin, platinum and copper. Silver and copper created brown, orange and red, which sometimes appeared so dark as to look black. The Majolica method developed, changing and evolving, new ways of making colors were found, without having to use expensive metals, so work became cheaper and quicker. In each pottery company the preparation of colors was a specialty and top secret. The employer, who made and prepared the colors to be used, had the job of measuring and keeping account of the quantities given out to the workers who decorated the ware.

In locations where the earth was suitable for making clay, many ceramic firms became established. In the past each firm went through the whole process, from taking the clay out of the ground to decorating and firing the finished pieces. The workers were always employed in the same section so that they became specialists and quick in their work. The clay, after being dug out of the ground, was mixed with water and screened to clean, removing all insoluble material. The water was then filtered off, the clay left until it reached a semi-dry state, then cut into large separated blocks and left in caves, sometimes for up to two years, as ageing helps to improve the plasticity.

Before being used, the clay had to be well kneaded to form a smooth plastic body, suitable for throwing and molding tiles, pots and plates. For the first firing, the pieces made in clay had to be left until they were bone dry. In Spain, the kilns used for firing were known as Arab Kilns and they created the heat by wood firing. They were large brick structures with two floors. The bottom floor of the kiln was for the wood-fire and the top for the objects going to be fired. The firing time depended on the size of the kiln and could take up to 24 hours. It started with a low fire which gradually heated up until it reached the required temperature and this point was judged by looking through the pin-holes to see the color of the heat and slipping out test pieces to see the evolution of a colored glaze. The timing with clay is not too important as slightly over-firing does not affect it, but with colors, over-firing can completely destroy all the work in the kiln.

The firing process demanded men to work non-stop, filling the kiln with wood, checking that the temperature was continuously increasing at the same degree throughout the kiln. When the kiln reached the correct temperature it was left to cool, opened, and each piece was taken out, checked for deformed shapes, uneven surfaces which had to be filed down and sounded for breakages. Damaged pieces that could not be used commercially were broken up and put into walls that were being built to strength them. Some can be seen in the walls of the Cathedral of Barcelona.

It became a popular product and started being made in other towns, such as Talavera and Barcelona. The trade was in the hands of the local merchants, but Moorish craftsmen, who had moved from Andalusia to live and work in the peaceful and prosperous Christian kingdoms increased their work, as it was not only for the wealthy families, but also for merchants, townspeople, religious communities, and was exported to the Mediterranean and the Low Countries. With this expansion, the Moorish traditions in decoration were gradually changing and being replaced with Christian motives.

With the increase in production and cheaper materials, the colors could now be made without valuable metals. Plates, pots, tiles for walls, floors, and ceilings were all being produced with blue, a popular and predominant color. The word “azulejo”, which means tile in Spanish, originates from this tradition. “Azul” means blue and “lejos” means far off. Today, “azulejo” means tile and, translated literally, means blue-distance, a color to be seen from far off.

Tiles in churches and private houses started to show figurative conventions. It became an illustrated method of informing the illiterate public, decorations on church walls told Bible stories; chemist’s pots were decorated with plants and their Latin names; craftsmen and workmen doing everyday jobs were depicted; tiles showed the process of making wine, bread, oil, and many other specialties. Products in ceramics were being produced for daily use by all the public.

Note: Majolica History has 2 sections, to go to the first click on Majolica: 2a – History