Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.


terra-cotta (tĕrˈə kŏtˈə) [Ital.,=baked earth], form of hard-baked pottery, widely used in the decorative arts, especially as an architectural material, either in its natural red-brown color, or painted, or with a baked glaze.

The Ancient World

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.

Renaissance Terra-cotta

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.

Modern Uses

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


A hard-burnt glazed or unglazed clay unit, either plain or ornamental, machine extruded or hand-molded, usually larger in size than a brick or facing tile, used in building construction.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



colored, porous unglazed ceramic ware. Terra-cotta has both artistic and utilitarian significance; it is used to make dishes, vases, sculpture, toys, tiles, facing tiles, and architectural components.

After firing, terra-cotta acquires a characteristic color, from light cream to reddish brown and black, and a texture ranging from granular to fine, with complete or partial polishing. The most important examples of artistic terra-cotta are (1) the minor works of plastic art that were widespread in almost all Neolithic cultures, small sculptured figurines, sarcophagi, statues, and sculpture groups from the Etruscan civilization and from ancient Greece, China, India, and the Americas, (2) architectural components of the archaic Greek, Etruscan, and ancient Roman temples, (3) medieval carved terra-cotta in the architecture of Middle Asia, (4) Italian Renaissance ornamental architectural components and portrait busts done in relief, and (5) statuettes from the 18th century (usually in the rococo style).

In Russia, terra-cotta is known to have been produced in Kievan Rus’. Beginning in the 15th century, terra-cotta was used in Russian architecture in the decorative finishing of facades of brick buildings in Moscow, and beginning in the 18th century it was used in sculptural studies, busts, and other genres. Decorative terra-cotta facings were widely used in Soviet architecture during the 1950’s. In contemporary sculpture, terra-cotta is particularly frequently used for shaping small forms, since it allows the expressive laconism and lively spontaneity of the study to be preserved in the finished work.


Filippov, A. V., S. V. Filippova, and F. G. Brik. Arkhitekturnaia terrakota. Moscow, 1941.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A brownish-orange clay used in the production of high-quality earthenware, vases, and statuettes, and for tile floors and roofing.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Clay that has been molded in shape and then treated in a kiln at a high temperature; typically reddish-brown in color when unglazed; when glazed, usually colored and used for ornamental work, such as architectural terra-cotta, and for floor tile and roof tile.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
If serving many guests, prepare two of the camembert cheese (put them in separate ramekins or terra-cotta dishes), arrange the dishes side by side on a baking tray and bake them together.
As if pulled from Fattal's rib cage--which is pictured in the chest X-ray featured in the collage Plus bequetee d'oiseaux que des a coudre (Francois Villon) (More Needled by Birds Than a Darning Thimble [Francois Villon]), 2012--a cluster of nine small "goddess" sculptures in terra-cotta rose to life on a white platform at the center of the space.
I have to have a plumber come and snake the line via the access port in the PVC pipe and through the connecting iron pipe, which runs through the basement floor and joins up with the terra-cotta pipe.
By studying the terra-cotta warriors, archaeologists have learned about the emperor and life in ancient China.
Researchers have tried different polymer-based materials to strengthen the polychrome and secure it to the terra-cotta surface, but the polymer molecules have been too big to penetrate the coating.
The next day they can be collected and stored upright into the terra-cotta containers for use.
Terra-cotta serveware and dinnerware are traditionally fired at temperatures over 1,000 degrees F.
MPS recommended a comprehensive restoration program for all of the building's terra-cotta, and replacement of portions of its structural steel frame.
By the last half of the second millennium B.C., Susiana had developed an idiosyncratic and prolific repertoire of terra-cotta figurines and plaques dominated by the following types: a naked woman wearing headdresses, belts and jewelry (e.g., nos.
He was the winner in the 2007 International Biennale Terra-cotta Festival Exhibition and Competition in Silliman University, Dumaguete City, and the Grand Prize winner in the Pasalamat Festival in 2001.
We liked the sound of that too, so we were happy to find Al Fresco Imports' Beehive Oven, a stylish double-walled terra-cotta model atop a portable iron stand.
There is, nevertheless, a common point that unites all these apparently disjointed practices--the simplicity of the materials (paper, polystyrene, terra-cotta) and of the methods employed (folding, rudimentary animation techniques).