Go to the source of Spanish ceramics

Last spring, the surprise star of Home Decor, the massive interiors and design showroom in Madrid, were not an emerging trend in Copenhagen or Paris, but rather a room filled with hand-crafted Spanish craftsmanship. They didn’t have to travel far, having been created in Castilla-La Mancha, the vast sparsely populated region south of the Spanish capital where the fictional Don Quixote titled Windmills and Manchego Cheese is made.

Among the most discussed features of the gallery-like hall was a large mural of the kind one might find behind a cathedral altar depicting the apostles or the Stations of the Cross. But instead of saints, this one featured a very humorous 21st-century portrayal of Quixote and his negligent sidekick, Sancho Panza, which almost looked like graffiti.

The tone might have been irreverent, but it was made up of hundreds of delicately painted blue and white tiles. Designed by artist Roberto Ramírez, the tile mural was created by Cerámica Artística San Ginés, a ceramic workshop in Talavera de la Reina.

The city of about 85,000 inhabitants, which stretches along the north bank of the Tagus River about 80 miles southwest of Madrid, has come a long way from its ancient origins – Roman and Moorish fortifications still run through the city – when simple pottery workshops (alfareros) produced humble clay cookware and storage jars. It was in the 16th century, under Philippe II, that the industry gained momentum and became more professional. Highly skilled Flemish artists were recruited to teach and promote more refined glazing techniques and introduce painting styles from the Netherlands and Italy.

Soon Talavera produced decorative pieces – colorful enameled tiles, columns and urns – as well as elegant tableware that was quickly deemed fit for a king. Close to Madrid, where Philip II is busy renovating palaces and building his monumental monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Talavera has moved ahead of other ceramic production centers long established to meet the demands of the court. And that reputation lasted into the 21st century – and manifested itself in plenty of opportunities for the amateur ceramic buyer.

The story of the development of the tradition is beautifully told – in tiles, plates and trays – in the city Ruiz de Luna Ceramics Museum. Juan Ruiz de Luna was a pioneering impresario of early 20th century ceramics who revitalized the reputation (and fortune) of the city, which had been in decline since the 18th century. This business sense made Talavera ceramics chic once again, this time for an international clientele of the bourgeoisie of the heyday. Along the way, he collected historical pieces so that his artists could learn the techniques; these pieces form the basis of the museum’s collection.

Today, a third wave of reinvention is underway as artists and artisans – many of whom were trained at the Talavera Art School, which offers specialized training and attracts students from all over the world – strive to revive the city’s most famous industry.

The effort was significantly strengthened in 2019 when UNESCO declared the techniques of the ceramic industry of Talavera de la Reina and the nearby town of El Puente del Arzobispo Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Surprisingly, the UNESCO designation also includes Puebla and Tlaxcala, Mexico, where Spanish settlers adopted the distinctive techniques; the tiles and the workshops that produced them became known as “talaveras.”)

Last year, the 10th Talavera Ceramics Biennial brought together nearly 200 artists from 31 countries, and city officials hope the 2023 edition will be even larger.

“The UNESCO declaration had a quiet revolution effect on the ceramics sector,” said María Jesús Pérez Lozano, councilor for tourism, commerce and crafts in Talavera. “More and more people are visiting Talavera specifically for its ceramics – to appreciate the historic ceramics on display throughout the city and to buy or order contemporary products – and this in turn motivates more artisans to open their workshops for sale. direct and more experiential workshop visits. . “

Among the stops on the Talavera Contemporary Ceramics Trade Route is Centro Cerámico Talavera, which features dozens of lines adorned with traditional Talavera patterns (usually updated by changes in the coloring or scale of the patterns), as well as designs created by graffiti artists and tattoo artists and other innovative approaches to decorating ceramic. Popular items include a series of realistic-scale ceramic skulls (70 to 150 euros, around $ 82 to $ 177) painted with five centuries of Talavera designs combined in a myriad of mixtures.

Just around the corner Cerámica Artística San Ginés became internationally known for his expansive tile murals, but he also focused on small-scale objects, like a wonderfully varied collection of hand-painted ceramic Christmas baubles (around 35 to 50).

Through the city Cerámicas Santos Timoneda specializes in large-scale pieces – tile murals up to 50 feet long and larger ships turned on a wheel. A 24 inch amphora with simple yellow and blue Italian foliage decoration starts at around 400.

Where the old town meets the more industrial district of Talavera, Artesanía Talaverana offers an equally diverse range of artistic products, but has recently been busy making dinnerware sets, which became must-have items when the pandemic kept Spaniards confined to their homes. A service for 12 with relatively simple decoration starts at 565, although prices can exceed 2,000 with more elaborate painted decoration. All producers accept collaborations and special commissions from customers, and shipping is available worldwide.

While Talavera’s name today is almost synonymous with tiles and ceramics, the city also once had a thriving silk industry. These factories shut down in the mid-19th century, but some nearby towns, such as Oropesa and Lagartera, remain famous for their textile traditions – especially colorful and intricate embroidery adorning items such as clothing and tablecloths. The changing tastes of the younger generations, who do not want to get into needlework or embroidery, or colorful and colorful designs, have contributed to putting these cottage industries in decline.

But efforts are being made to help both industries – and even to showcase the junction of the two. To celebrate UNESCO’s declaration, Iloema, a small company that strives to revive and celebrate regional embroidery traditions in parts of Spain and to make them known internationally, has launched a line of placemats and napkins inspired by the Talavera ceramics.

“In the 17th and 18th centuries, Talavera artisans created a range of tiles that artfully incorporated or simulated the look of local embroidered textiles, tapestries and lace,” said Iloema co-founder Silvia Delgado de Torres. “We’re going the other way: borrowing iconic painted ceramic patterns from Talavera tableware and hand-embroidering them on linen by local women. A set of two embroidered linen placemats with matching napkins costs around $ 315.

Spaniards may despise Spanish products – until they see that they have established themselves internationally. But they are also deeply proud and committed to their regional traditions, and Talavera de la Reina once again finds a way to satisfy both sides of the Spanish psyche.

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