By Julie Etra
Talavera refers to a type and style of ceramics, including tiles, that originated in Talavera de la Reina, Spain. King Philip II of Spain (1527-98) famously used these tiles to decorate the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, an enormous complex in the city of the same name northwest of Madrid.
Mexican talavera is referred to as Talavera Poblana to distinguish it from its Spanish relative. The clay used for Mexican Talavera is natural earth, the same used to produce terracotta. The best clay is found in Puebla and Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City and the center of Mexico’s Talavera production, while the Moorish and European work uses white clay.
The glazing technique is the same, though, and was brought by the Moors to Al-Andalus (Andalusia, in southern Spain) in the 14th century. Called “faïence” after Faenza, Italy, which became a major pottery production center, the glazing technique adds tin to the lead-based white “slip,” or liquid clay applied over the surface of the piece, to create a smooth surface for painted decoration. In addition to the metals incorporated into the glaze, the faïence technique requires very high-temperature kilns.
The pottery of Spain and Mexico retains the name Talavera from the city of its origin; tin-glazed pottery from Majorca, the Mediterranean island off the eastern coast of Spain was called “Majolica” or “maiolica,” and was shipped from the island to Italy, where, as noted, the glaze became known as faïence.
In Mexico, production is centered in four Puebla cities: Puebla itself, Atlixco, Cholula, and Tecali. Most likely introduced by Catholic monks, demand increased in the 17th century as Puebla grew and more churches and monasteries, that is, buildings subsidized by the Church, which was able to afford the lavish, ornate decorations. Elaborate tile façades of private homes were also indicative of wealth and prestige.
The terracotta clay is brick red (pun intended) and visible at the base of the pieces, left unglazed so the piece does not fuse to the shelf of the high-temperature kiln. To meet regulations for authenticity, Talavera pieces are hand thrown on a potter’s wheel – they cannot be mass produced. Glaze colors are limited to blue, yellow, black, green, orange, and mauve (pinkish purple), and must originate from natural pigments. Historically, blue was the dominant, if not only, color, derived from cobalt, prestigious due to its rarity. Cobalt does not typically occur in free form but is chemically combined, requiring smelting to be isolated. The bottom of the piece is signed by the artist, where the logo and location of the manufacturer also appears.
The production process of Talavera ceramics is slow, meticulous, and complicated. With the many steps come the risks of failure at each juncture, one explanation for the relatively high cost for such exceptional art. There are two firings, as with stoneware and porcelain ceramics. Following the first firing the pieces are hand painted, and then fired at a high temperature.
Talavera is a proprietary product, like tequila or Champagne, with production authorized only from a particular place – in this case Puebla (and Tlaxcala, surrounded by Puebla), with nine certified workshops regulated by the Talavera Regulatory Counsel (Consejo Regulador de la Talavera). Techniques and materials are very thoroughly scrutinized by the Board. The Consejo tests glazes to ensure that the glaze does not have lead content of more than 2.5 parts per million, since many pieces are used to serve food and beverages.
These days, you can find the workshops online and order pieces ranging from all sizes of tiles and full place settings. From my perspective there is no substitute for a trip to Puebla (also famous for its excellent cuisine) to admire and examine the beautiful architecture and associated ceramic embellishments, and to personally check out the workshops and markets. Talavera is Puebla!
Photo: Modern Talavera – Daniel LLerandi