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 B.C. Terra-cotta first gained importance as an architectural material in classical Greece, where, beginning about the 7th cent. B.C., 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.
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.
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).