Under this name, which is the Italian equivalent of "baked clay," we comprise pottery intended for architectural ornaments, and especially that which contributes to general decoration. The gutter-covers and finials of which we have spoken under the head of roofing accessories, might have been included among terra-cottas, but their fixed location takes from them the special characteristic more particularly attributed to ornamental pottery.
Did this art precede sculpture in stone? Archaeologists are not agreed on this point, but it is certain that it is of very ancient date, and we have evidence of this in the numerous cornices, friezes, and bas - reliefs found in the ruins of buildings which were constructed during the early centuries of historic times.
A Greek poetical story or legend attributes to the Corinthian potter Debutades, the invention of moulding, for reproduction in clay, of figures in relief. His daughter loved passionately a young and handsome swain, and, being obliged to separate from him, manifested such grief that her father, in order if possible to mitigate her sorrow, traced the outline of the shadow thrown on a wall by her lover's head; he then filled this silhouette in with prepared clay, and fired the medallion thus obtained in his kiln.
Pliny relates that at the period when Corinth was taken by the Romans, this first remarkable example of a new art was still treasured in the Temple of the Nymphs.
Fragments discovered among the ruins of several Grecian towns show that there was an extensive use of terra-cotta ornaments in Greece, and that the art had reached a high degree of perfection both in taste and execution. The best work of that period dates from the time of Phidias and Polycletes (5 th century-B.C.).
The Etruscans, who have left us such remarkable specimens of pottery, borrowed much from the Greeks, while giving their productions an originality of their own. They made friezes and frontons of large size for their temples and buildings.
Rome employed Etruscan sculptors for the decoration of her public buildings, and especially for the Capitol, under Tarquin the Elder (6th century B.C.).
Terra-cotta work held such an important place in Roman buildings, that there existed at Rome a school, the Collegium figulorum, for preparing workmen for that industry. The invasion of the Barbarians checked the progress of the arts, and for several centuries the use of terra-cotta, without being completely abandoned, suffered an eclipse. But in the 11th century it once more took a prominent position in architectural decoration, especially in Germany and Italy. There still remain many fine monuments of that period, such as the Carthusian monastery at Pisa (Fig. 317), the cathedral at Crema (Fig. 321), and many others, in which magnificent examples of terracotta decoration are found.
The popularity of the plastic art continued until the 16th century; great artists like Bramante and Michael Angelo, did not disdain to use it in the works which they executed, for example the Chancellerie palace (15th century) and the Farnese palace (16th century, Fig. 328) in Rome, and the apsis of Santa-Maria della Gracia at Milan (Fig. 327). After being again neglected during the two following centuries, terra-cotta was once more successfully utilised in Germany and England in the 19th century. Among the most remarkable examples of buildings constructed of brick and terra-cotta, we may mention the School of Architecture of Schmikel, the Werder Church, and the Museum of Decorative Art in Berlin.
In England, where this kind of work is extensively used, the palatial Natural History Museum recently built in London is entirely constructed, both outside and inside, of iron and terra-cotta.
In France, the claims of terra-cotta have been less readily accepted, on account, perhaps, of the abundance of stone in that country; perhaps also through the unreasonable attachment to ancient customs which offers such a stubborn resistance to novelties.
In spite of two brilliant displays, the Exhibitions of 1878 and 1889, which ought to have powerfully recommended the advantages of terra-cotta as applied to modern architecture, its use is still very limited. Nevertheless there were, in those rapidly erected palaces, many happy colouring effects, and many truly original combinations, which lead us to think that this branch of art, if prosecuted and studied by masters, would lead to an architectural renaissance, and that such a renaissance would perhaps rid us of those everlasting facades, which are always the same, and which make our streets so monotonous. May the Exhibition of 1900 settle the question, and finally establish the new architecture of which its predecessors have given us a glimpse!