Ceramics are defined as products made from inorganic materials, having non-metallic properties and processed at a high temperature at some time during their manufacture. The word ‘ceramics’ comes from the Greek word ‘keramos,’ meaning ‘clay’ or ‘earthenware’. This Greek word is related to an old Sanskrit term meaning ‘to burn’ (originally meaning ‘burnt things’).
Ceramic tiles have a unique place in history. They were undoubtedly the first product of domestic use to be both functional and decorative. The history of tiles dates back as far as the fourth century B.C., when tiles were used in Egypt to decorate various types of houses. At that time, clay bricks were dried in the sun or baked and the first glazes in blue, derived from copper, were applied to their surfaces: .
Ancient tiles – dating back to the same period and generally decorated with simple alternating white and blue stripes – were found in Mesopotamia. Others, more recent and with more articulated patterns, have been unearthed in Tunisia (ninth century A.D.), Kashan, Iran (eleventh century), and found in several Middle-Eastern mosques, displaying Koranic scripts on a coloured base (twelfth century onwards). With regard to Eastern Asia, which we will only touch on briefly for lack of space, intense ceramic activity was registered early on in China, Korea and Japan.
Iznik (in Turkey) was one of the main manufacturing centres of later Islamic ceramic tiles and, from the end of the fourteenth century, stood out for the quality of its products. Whereas, initially, production was concentrated on white and blue pieces, during the first half of the sixteenth century, the colour palette of Iznik’s ceramics expanded to include turquoise, crimson, green, black and, from around 1550, a particular shade of scarlet. The most appreciated patterns were the ones representing plants and flowers- particularly tulips – which were depicted on ceramic tiles, plates and crockery.

The origins

The roots of the Italian ceramic tile go back to the late Middle Ages, when, in the embellishment of public and religious architecture, it became necessary to improve its use and design. The production of Italian majolica developed from the late-Roman hexagonal fired tiles with marble inset, passing through medieval and ‘Islamic’/‘Moorish’ designs, to arrive at an entirely handmade, original production with patterns created mainly for the purpose of interior decoration. As with many other products, the history of Italian design was characterized by the borrowing of ideas from other cultures and then improving upon the original product by employing local ingenuity and artistic creativity.
The production of the ‘ingobbiata’ majolica in Florence, Siena, Orvieto and Faenza was already active in the twelfth century, but it was only during the fifteenth century that ceramic art reached its apogee. Terracotta, once used solely for ornamental and decorative expressions around doors, windows and arches, was elevated to the status of being used in valuable sculptures by artists such as Antonio Pollaiolo and Donatello in Tuscany and Niccolò dell’Arca and Guido Mazzoni in Emilia. Meanwhile, Luca and Andrea Della Robbia enhanced the use of majolica in sculptures and decorations.

From then on and for a long time, ceramic products from the city of Faenza, which gave its name to the French term faïence – coined in the 1600s and still used as a synonym for majolica (also known as ‘faenza’ in Italian), occupied a predominant position. Following on the decorated majolica, Faenza enjoyed a big success with the stylized pattern of light colours on white glaze (the so-called ‘Whites of Faenza’ style).
In Liguria, the oldest archaeological finds and information from archived documents concur in dating the beginning of Albisola’s ceramic manufacturing at sometime around the last twenty-five years of the fifteenth century. The neighbouring town of Savona had a much older tradition, which recent studies have dated to the twelfth century. However, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the production of ‘laggioni’ – , tile coverings for floors and walls, glazed with bright colours and featuring patterns deriving from Islamic and Renaissance art – was initiated.


Italian majolica craftsmen developed new styles, adapted to fit the changing trends and patterns of interior decoration in both public and private buildings. One of the first tiled floors, designed by a celebrated artist, was placed in a chapel of San Petronio in Bologna in 1487. Pietro Andrea da Faenza was the artist; his use of tiles quickly became famous. Later, tile usage spread rapidly throughout Italy, in religious buildings, palaces and villas.
In central Italy, particularly in Deruta, ceramic products achieved their maximum splendour during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Decorative pieces with geometrical and figurative patterns appeared next to objects for daily use. Moreover, during this period, ceramic tiles for flooring reached the acme of perfection in their manufacturing, their colours and the thematic representations, of which significant examples can still be seen: the floor of the San Francesco church in Deruta, now at the local ceramic museum, the floor of the Basso-Della Rovere chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, that of the Baglioni chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello and that of the San Bernardino oratorio in Perugia.
In Southern Italy, the use of ceramic tiles spread during the Baroque period from the craftsmanship of Campania’s Vietri sul Mare and from Central Italy especially to Sicily, where depictions of giant mythological scenes or vast figurative compositions linked to religious iconography were produced. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, ceramic tiles evolved from being a floor decoration with a single theme/panelled view, to that of a repetitive or modular (proto-industrial) object.