The history of clay

The history of clay

The first evidence of the production of bricks dates back to the days of the Babylonians, more than 5000 years ago. At first they were used in their unbaked form, simply left to dry in the sun and it was only in 2500 BC that they began to be baked.

Stone wasn’t always available and when it was, the crafting process was difficult and time consuming. Clay on the other hand, was perfectly easy to mix and mould and, once dry, was a valid support for early constructions.
Right from the start, the brick has always been a parallelepiped with a precise golden relationship between its three dimensions. The length is normally twice the width and the width is twice the thickness. Thanks to the fact that is so easy to mould, clay has always enabled the construction of bricks with different profiles, enabling the builder to artistically enhance the construction, setting different trends in different periods and places.

From the Sumerians to the Babylonians, from the Assyrians to the Egyptians, from the Greeks to the Romans, terracotta bricks represent a material which has been used beyond every national boundary throughout history. There is considerable evidence of the rich medieval architecture in Europe.

The terracotta brick continues to one of very few products made exclusively of natural materials: clay, sand, water and fire being the elements used in the creation process. The support provided by the latest technology in controlling the baking process creates a product that represents a choice aimed at guaranteeing durable constructions which are both attractive and economically remunerative in time.

Terracotta in Piedmont

There is evidence of use of terracotta in the Po Valley dating back as far as the 2nd century BC. Brick soon became the material most commonly used in urban and rural constructions. It became synonymous with home and the domestic hearth. In a region which has no stone or marble quarries but is rich in clay, it was necessary to do the best with what was available and terracotta was the perfect surrogate for more prestigious materials, so much so that it was sometimes coated with plaster and decorated to imitate marble, and its’ use became extremely popular in the whole Po Valley area.

Much earlier than in other areas of Italy, using the experience of the Etruscans, a close networks of kilns was set up throughout Piedmont. There is valuable evidence of the early kilns and the handle brick, so-called because of the slit which was used to grip the brick, making it easier to handle. The typical dimensions of the handle brick were: base=29.5 cm x height=45 cm x thickness=6.5 cm, with an approximate weight of 16 kg.

In addition to bricks, archaeological digs have unearthed roof tiles, split tiles for roofing, floor tiles and decorative mouldings. The role of brick products in the Middle Ages has been extensively documented in written sources and abacuses of measurements.

Decorative trimming elements were moulded to make cornices and capitals to enhance public buildings, churches and palaces. The architecture of our towns wouldn’t be the same without the contribution made by terracotta. In projects by architects such as Juvarra (1678/1736), Guarini (1624/1683 ), Antonelli (1798/1888) and Vittone 1705/1770), terracotta seduces and charms with prestigious presences.

The architectonic ideology of Guarini, in keeping with other respected architects, stated that it was improper to use materials which weren’t from the area and couldn’t be found without spending considerable sums of money, and that, generally speaking, it isn’t so much the material that determines the beauty of a work, as the way it is used.

Thanks to perfect reproducibility and modest prices, terracotta enables architectonic expression even in cases where money is restricted and in rural areas, as opposed to the great works of the famous architects mentioned earlier.

The symmetry of the constructions, largely arranged around a central main body, surmounted by a streamlined tympanum upon which the family coat of arms was displayed, surrounded by absolutely symmetrical sleeves made of brick, with pillars which were sometimes coated with plaster near the ground. Brick and plaster decoration was used in the right proportions, and shaped bricks were used to create decorative mouldings, sometimes using different colours around doors, windows and arches and to mark the different floors. Columns were topped with impressive capitals and gratings were sometimes created using special shapes.

Some examples of prestigious brick constructions in Turin: Medieval Village, detailed view of the Pavilions of Venaria Reale, Valentino Castle, the estate of the Royal Castle of Racconigi, La Mandria and a rustic construction designed by Antonelli, in Asti, the double lancet window of Palazzo Solaro, the façade of Palazzo Strata, the string-course of Palazzo Catena, in the Marquisate of Saluzzo, the Trojan Tower and the antique Town Hall, St. John’s Belltower, the tower in the Commune of Revello, in Biella, Palazzo Gromo and the Civic Museum, in the Novara district, the Gate of Gattinara and the Abbey of St. Nazario Sesia, in the Alessandria district, the door to the church of Santa Maria della Guardia of Sale etc. etc.

Even today, Fornace Ballatore contributes with its work to faithfully restoring the artistic architectonic heritage left to us by the great masters and enables the contemporary designers who create today’s architecture, to express themselves with its bricks, a material sometimes thought of as poor, but noble, rich in history and definitely able to withstand the passage of time, for centuries.