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Terracotta, terra cotta, or terra-cotta (pronounced [ˌtɛrraˈkɔtta]; Italian: “baked earth”, literally “cooked earth”, from the Latin terra cocta), a type of earthenware, is a clay-based unglazed or glazed ceramic, where the fired body is porous. Terracotta is the term normally used for sculpture made in earthenware, and also for various practical uses including vessels (notably flower pots), water and waste water pipes, roofing tiles, bricks, and surface embellishment in building construction. The term is also used to refer to the natural brownish orange color of most terracotta.
This article covers the senses of terracotta as a medium in sculpture, as in the Terracotta Army and Greek terracotta figurines, and architectural decoration. East Asian and European sculpture in porcelain is not covered. Glazed architectural terracotta and its unglazed version as exterior surfaces for buildings were used in East Asia for some centuries before becoming popular in the West in the 19th century.
In art history, “terracotta” is often used to describe objects such as figurines not made on a potter’s wheel. Vessels and other objects that are or might be made on a wheel from the same material are called earthenware pottery; the choice of term depends on the type of object rather than the material or firing technique. Unglazed pieces, and those made for building construction and industry, are also more likely to be referred to as terracotta. Glazed terracotta for tableware, and other vessels, is called earthenware, or by a more precise term such as faience which denotes a particular type of glaze.
Terracotta is a very flexible material to sculpt. Pieces can be formed by both an “additive” technique, adding portions of clay to the growing pieces, or a “subtractive” one, carving into a solid lump with a knife or similar tool. Perhaps most common is a combination of these, building up the broad shape and then removing pieces, or adding more, to produce details.
The most common method of production is to take an appropriate refined clay, then form it to the desired shape. Alternatively it may be made with one or more moulds. After drying, it is placed in a kiln or atop combustible material in a pit, and then fired. The typical firing temperature is around 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), though it may be as low as 600 °C (1,112 °F) in historic and archaeological examples. The iron content, reacting with oxygen during firing, gives the fired body a reddish color, though the overall color varies widely across shades of yellow, orange, buff, red, “terracotta”, pink, grey or brown.