Terracotta and architecture
curated by G. Morolli

The rich Tuscan clays as well as the ingenuity of the Etruscan craftsmen who used terracotta as protection and ornament for the structures of their large wooden temples, gave rise to the so-called “terracotta civilization” which has been characteristic of our region for about three millennia and is attested by great architectural masterpieces, ranging from the Renaissance (let us think of Brunelleschi’s dome) to the more contemporary ones (let us mention the terracotta buildings designed by the well-known architect Mario Botta).

Wood and Terracotta: the temple of the Etruscans

The Greek and Roman temples reproduce in their columns and trabeations, the forms of the wooden structures of the more ancient sacred buildings, simple and functional structures which would inspire the majestic classical buildings in stone and in marble.

But while in Greece and Magna Grecia these ancestral temples entirely made of wood passed swiftly to the more lasting ones built in stone or marble, in the rich but “peripheral” Etruria the sacred buildings continued to be built in wood up to end of that civilization, which was absorbed by the Roman power.

Unfortunately none of these majestic Etruscan buildings have survived, because of the very perishability of the material used, even if archaeological finds and numerous literary witnesses have enabled us to get to know some of the ingenious methods the “Tuscan” (from Tuscia) architects used to extend as much as possible the life of their wooden structures, protecting them from their worst enemies, dampness and fire.

In fact every part was covered with special modular terracotta elements, so that the external surfaces of the trunks and beams were entirely enclosed by brick covers (the so-called architectural terracottas).

Moreover clay was also suitable for a rich ornamental and figurative modelling which, embellished with a lively colouring of the single decorative elements, contributed to making Etruscan temples gaudy-coloured buildings, joyfully Mediterranean and suggestively archaizing even to the Ancients themselves.

The red walls of Florentia

When the veterans of Caesar’s or, more likely Augustus’ armies saw in front of them the mighty wall fortifications to protect the very modern municipium of Florentia, intended for their “pension” by the generosity of the State, they were surely struck by the colour of those tall brick walls, punctuated by semi-cylindrical towers and having four monumental gates in the direction of each of the cardinal points.

Recent finds have allowed establishing that those defensive walls, with an average thickness of more than two metres, were built using large-sized bricks: either called dìdoron brick – from the Greek “two spans” – or also lýdion, that is originating from Lydia in Asia Minor, practically the size of three of our modern bricks placed horizontally side by side.

A circle of red walls destined to influence “genetically” the architecture of the future Florence, a town which, despite the apparent domination of “noble” stone materials in its main buildings of the various stylistic periods (the Middle Ages with the golden pietra forte, the Renaissance with the azurine pietra serena, the Baroque with the polychrome inlays in coloured stone), has always also resorted to the use of the reliable, functional and humble terracotta, even if for less showy and celebrated buildings, which are often practically ignored by historiography itself.

The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Dome of the Florentine Cathedral, with its almost four million bricks and a height of almost one hundred metres, since its very creation has defied rain, lightning and wind, being “so large and sweeping to cover all the peoples of Tuscany with its shadow’, as Leon Battista Alberti celebrated it in 1436, when the structure had just been completed.

Brunelleschi himself, the Florentine Daedalus, controlled its execution and ‘went to the brickworks in person” to check that all brick items , “were properly fired and well-done” as recounted in Vita di Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, dictated by Antonio di Tuccio Manetti around 1480.

Without the construction “flexibility” of these tiny brick parallelepipeds, which are even microscopic if compared to the dimensions of the enormous dome, none of the inventions -which enabled the technical miracle thanks to which, as in the program for the 1418 “competition”, the dome “would be vaulted without framework” (that is without the help of large wooden scaffolds rising from the ground) - would have been possible: neither the laying of the horizontal rows of bricks laid flat on a slightly concave upward progression known as “corda branda”, nor the use of vertical chains of brick laid edgewise, creating dozens and dozens of “herringbones” to strengthen the segments of the dome; nor the connection between the inner and outer shells through “ribs” and “bridges”, crossing in an echelon formation like the meridians and the parallels of a planisphere.

If, therefore, the large hollow space of the dome of the Florentine Cathedral was designed to welcome Christ, the “Flower” itself of the Virgin’s womb, its structure was made of the most humble of materials, considered, perhaps exactly for its sancta simplicitas, really worthy of amplifying throughout the territory the protective architectonic womb of “Santa Maria del Fiore”.

Bricks and 15th-century florentine architecture

With the return to classical culture by the 15th-century Humanism, the aemulatio, sed non imitatio, the competition with classical works and not the slavish mechanical imitation of them, found in the “rebirth” of terracotta a fertile field of application which was not limited to sculpture, but was widespread also in the sphere of architecture.

It is enough to mention the red floors of so many of Brunelleschi’s buildings such as the floors of the San Lorenzo and Santo Spirito Basilicas, or the urban spaces themselves, like the elegant terracotta paving of Pienza’s Square by Alberti, copied from the medieval one of Signoria Square in Florence, or still the warm covering of the many 15th-century small domes, from those of the Sacristy of San Lorenzo and of the Pazzi Chapel in Santa Croce, to those of the apse of Santissima Annunziata and of the cross-vault of Santo Spirito.


The terracotta “soppani” in the Museum of the Treasure of the Impruneta Basilica, are commonly dated to the first decades of the 16th century and usually depict a Marian or Christological ornamentation. They are the tablets which originally were the “bottom” of some coffers of a lost flat ceiling which is now thought to have belonged to the Villa near Santa Margherita a Montìci built for Pietro del Tovaglia, administrator of the Florentine assets of Ludovico Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua and patron of the circular apse in the Santissima Annunziata Church in Florence.

Inside the Villa, not by chance, there still is a monumental barrel vaulted room with lacunars embellished with Gonzaga emblems both isolated (rayed sun) and linked with Medici devices (a diamond ring together with a marigold flower pertaining to a marquis). This ornamentation is also to be found in our “soppani” (whose name may hint at their being “subject” to the checkerboard wooden structure of a flat coffer ceiling) where, besides the rayed sun, we also find a ring and a door knocker, again linked to the Gonzaga, as well as a “tablecloth” stretched between supports, hinting at the name of the Villa’s owner (whose name translates as tablecloth).

Terracotta “soppani” intended for the ceiling of a “small studio”, a secret room whose decorations were meant to celebrate the glories of his “lords” from Mantua by the “courtier” Pietro del Tovaglia. And emblems, small studios, barrel vaults and lacunars are themes that seem to suggest the theory, both for the general conception of Pietro del Tovaglia’s country dwelling and the precious invention of the “speaking images” of the lacunars, of a cultured indication by Leon Battista Alberti, who was also directly linked to the Gonzaga administrator by legally binding interests related to the worksite of his Annunziata “tondo” (apse).

The Pietrasanta bell tower

Around 1516 Donato Benti, a skilful marble engraver, was involved - because he was one of Michelangelo’s assistants - in the opening of the Pietrasanta quarries. It was a recent Florentine acquisition favoured by the Medici Pope Leo X, which, for the abundance of its marble, was to be a great competitor to the nearby, but “foreign” Carrara.

From 1520 Benti himself was engaged in carrying out for the local Collegiate Church of San Martino, a mighty bell tower completely in brick, more than thirty metres tall and eight metres wide at the base. An unusual work, still today overlooked by the critics, which on the exterior appears as a slender parallelepiped with its four faces not perfectly vertical, but rather tapered (that is very slightly “sloping” inwards like a gigantic pillar), whose outer surface is “fluted” by the bosses and recesses of the brick toothing intended to hold the marble slabs covering which was never done.

But the main surprise comes from the internal structuring of the building: the tall brick solid is in fact “excavated” by an audacious spiral staircase, still in brick, which, after three full turns (for a total sum of one hundred steps), rises to the level of the present belfry.

At the centre, the large cylindrical space (tapered too) assumes the suggestive aspect of a real and proper “air column” whose general dimensions perfectly, and significantly, follow those of the marble spiral of Trajan’s Column, whose author, Apollodorus of Damascus, had established 18 Roman spans (about 4 metres) as the column’s modular-diameter, the same identical measure used by the Renaissance builder for the width of the centre of our bell tower.

The structural boldness of the tower, the drawing on an ambiguously cited antique “source”, cited in the negative, the extraordinary monumentality itself of the building which appears to be decidedly “out of scale” for the modest urban dimension of the small Apuan town, make us think of an “inventor” of a much higher artistic brilliance than that of Donato Benti, an artist we would like to identify as the “divine” and “extravagant” genius of Michelangelo himself who, with such a complex and efficient building, may have wanted to reach the amazing effect to have not just the eye but especially the ear perceive the proportional harmonies of this gigantic, celestial column of “sound”.

Brick between the 19th and 20th centuries

The functional vocation of terracotta materials and the production mechanisms for brick encountered profound changes between the 19th and 20th centuries thanks, on one hand, to the application of new scientific and technological methodologies and, on the other, to a “polytechnic” architecture that was increasingly functionalist and less and less overloaded by ornamentation. In the use of brick, architecture found a tool that was capable of perfectly incarnating the aspiration of these new “modern” buildings to bare simplicity.

The ductility of clay, later applied also to “mass” production of architectonic elements created according to the forms of various styles from the past (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, baroque and so on), made sure that these inexpensive brick products also became the centrepieces of the architecture of historicism first and later of Decadentismo and of Liberty.
Examples of this renewed discovery of terracotta are both the valuable classicist ornamentation in brick conceived by Ridolfo Castinelli in 1823 for the Shrine of Minerva Medica in the Romantic-Masonic park of the Vaccà Berlinghieri family in Montefoscoli, and the standardized bricks for the facades of the buildings of the “Scuola di Guerra Aerea” in Florence’s Cascine Park, designed and built by Raffaello Fagnoni in 1936-1938.

Two often unacknowledged architectural “masterpieces” that represent two extremes, separated by little more than a century, of this “fluctuation” of the use of bricks in construction between the fantasies of historicist-romantic invention and the presumed objectivity of 20th-century architectural rationalism.

The bricks of today

For some decades, architecture in Italy and abroad has regained confidence in an expressive language where functionality may return to having a dialogue with the creation of originally harmonic and expressive forms and in which the revival of traditional “coloured” materials such as wood, stone and especially brick, may also bring back to man’s living spaces the naturalness, warmth and spontaneity that had characterized for thousands of years the polychromatic, “lively” products of the art of building.

Thus, with a return to the archetypical brick – a humble material yet one with a rich architectural history of about five millennia – the analysis of a fertile relationship between terracotta and man’s construction concludes, in a virtuous circle destined to continue also for the centuries and, we hope, for the millennia to come.

The kiln: an age-old "apparatus"

The kiln is the womb and the cradle where the brick was created and it developed: an all-brick “apparatus” thanks to which it was possible to carry out the alchemic dream of transforming elements: “earth into stone”.

The ancient “Roman” kiln established, at least until the mid-19th century, the form and function of this apparatus used in the production of bricks (and any other terracotta object). It was characterized by its being made entirely of special refractory bricks able to stand the high temperatures necessary for a proper firing.

The kiln was made up of two chambers of the same size, an upper one and a lower one, both having rectangular plans and barrel vault ceilings. The lower chamber was the proper combustion chamber, called a “firebox”. The upper one – where the “green” material was introduced for firing – was a room temporarily sealed with a wall during the firing; this wall was demolished once the fire was out and the “alchemic” transmutation of matter had been successfully completed.