Published: November 2007THE GENUINE ARTICLE
The Timeless Traditions of Catalan Ceramics
Photo: Museu de Ceràmica in Barcelona, Spain
Traditional Catalan pottery is on display at the Museo de Ceràmica in Barcelona.
By Laura Morelli
Photo by Ingolf Pompe 26/Alamy

Barcelona epitomizes the colorful, playful spirit of the artists Miró, Picasso, Dalí, and Gaudí, all of whom lived and worked here. The city is one of my favorite spots in Europe, a true shopper's and art-lover's paradise. Bedazzled by Barcelona's modern delights, many visitors overlook the much older artistic heritage of Catalonia, the city's rural hinterland, including one of its most deep-rooted traditions: pottery.

Catalan pottery (terrissa catalana in Catalan language) traces its legacy to prehistoric times, thanks to an abundance of high-quality clay in the hills wedged along the northeastern Spanish coast bordering France. Archeologists have discovered decorated ceramic fragments dating back some 7,000 years. Iberian, Roman, and later, Moorish artisans built kilns to fire utilitarian pots now displayed by the thousands in regional museums.

Traditionally, potters pulled clay (el fang in Catalan) from rich deposits in their own villages. They formed pieces by hand using basic wheels, and fired them at high temperatures over an open flame to create durable, watertight vessels perfectly adapted to transporting water and olive oil, and serving food. Many vessels were left unglazed to show off the ruddy color of natural terracotta. Others were colored with deeply hued reflective glazes of cobalt, mustard, and deep green, sometimes left to drip down the sides in decorative patterns. Some of the most beautiful pieces combined glazed and unglazed earth.

Today, a small community of artisans across the region upholds this ancient tradition by crafting colorful pots using the techniques and styles of their ancestors. Most potters use electric wheels and kilns today, but a few adhere to the nonmechanized traditions. Two-handled jugs, decorative tiles, and platters with conical lids for serving Catalonia's Mediterranean dishes stand among the most characteristic forms still produced today.

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