Seville is known for many things – the old cliches of tapas, flamenco and bullfighting, orange trees and the Giralda, but also a ubiquitous feature of the city which you’ll see inside every house, on the walls of every patio, on most streets and plazas and benches, and even many churches and shops. In Plaza de España they take you to every province in Spain. In an old building – and we’re talking medieval, or even Moorish – look down, and you’ll see them under your feet.
Can you guess what they are? Ceramic tiles, or azulejos. Pottery has been made in the riverside barrio of Triana since Roman times, though it was the Moors who invented the exquisite azulejo coloured tiles, painting each one individually with a geometric pattern, to add a sense of space and colour to the interiors of their palaces. The barro (clay) from the river was ideal for making earthenware tiles and vessels, which were then painted and fired in kilns.
A potter is called an alfarero, and a pottery workshop or studio is an alfareria. Sadly, the part of Triana, near the market, which used to have wall-to-wall studios and shops (and, just decades ago, small factories), now has only a handful of artesans working. Triana’s tile industry flourished until the Moors left Spain and Dutch factories triumphed; it boomed again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, collapsed during the Civil War, and then experienced a mini-upsurge in the 1950s. However failure to modernize - many were still using ovens from Moorish times - led to the closure of nearly all the tile factories; the number plummeted from 40 in the early 1960s to less than five in the 1970s.
The best-known ceramic shop, Ceramica Santa Ana, a landmark building whose facade is covered in its trademark tiles, closed its shutters a few months ago, to great sadness. Though the tiles were no longer as sought-after in Seville as they once had been, it was still the end of an era. But behind the famous facade covered with brightly-coloured azulejos, informing us that the company has been here since 1870, work has been underway to create a new centre celebrating the alfareria tradition of Seville.
I was fortunate to be offered a sneak preview of the Centro Ceramica Triana last week, having expressed interest in finding out more about this hotly-anticipated project. The alfarero heritage, of which azulejos are such a major part, will be explained and dissected in this new museum, which covers 2500m2. Although the information panels and many of the tiles weren’t yet up on the walls and panels when I visited, I got a good idea of how the centre will look when it opens in early October. You can also see models and plans here.
The centre is divided between two floors: on the ground-floor space, you can see the seven kilns where the tiles were fired, with their pretty chimney pots – made of clay, naturally – as well as the stone basins and mills where the pigment dyes were ground and mixed, and barreros where the barro was kept damp. The upstairs part of the centre traces the development of azulejo techniques, with new artistic styles being introduced by artesans from outside Spain. There’s also a room devoted to Triana, the historically extramuros (outside the walls) barrio so intimately connected with the tradition and skill of alfareria.
I never though I’d be excited to see inside a brick-built oven, but it is bizarrely thrilling to walk into one of these circular kilns, which have holes in the floor to allow the heat to come up from the furnace below. You can see various sizes, from small ones without room to swing a cat, to ones big enough to hold an intimate party. There is even one kiln dating from Almohad times – around 1100AD; this is the Moorish dynasty which built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. When a kiln collapsed, as tended to happen, another was built on top.
You can see some kilns from above and some from below; some still have their floors while others are now vast, cavernous spaces. The smallest one is the first you see as you enter the courtyard at the start of your visit, and it’s also visible from the street, to offer passers-by a glimpse of what lies inside this well-known building – a great introduction to the theme of pottery.
Back at the start of the visit, after the first, small kiln you see samples of tiles from the 20th century – bold, bright lettering extolling the virtues of trips to Cordoba and Granada in three languages (English, French and Spanish), while Katie welcomes you to her “warm and friendly house”. Even the loo is covered in tiles – blue and white numbers to thrill everyone from small children just learning their sums, to mathematicians.
When you enter the large main courtyard, as well as the ovens, what strikes you are the bubble-likes clumps of ceramic circles: the new, upper part of the centre has a design motif which brings to mind 1970s buildings (in a hip, Wallpaper-ish sort of way) – concrete blocks whose sharp, austere angles are relieved by softer, rounder details. In this case, short ceramic tubes of varying widths are placed horizontally on top of each other, arranged in no set order, within randomly-sized niches placed against the windows.
These bizcocho (fired, unpainted earthenware)-coloured pieces, made in Andalucia, though sadly not in Sevilla, change subtly in tone according to the light. They are designed to create a celosia, a Moorish screen which covers a building’s facade decoratively, providing shade while at the same time letting light penetrate. The overall effect – for the combination of repeated shape and shifting colour provide the visual wow factor – is quite stunning. Moorish crossed with early Habitat; Terence Conran in the 70s.
You can’t see any of it from the street, so it’s a total surprise when you come in (unless you’ve already seen photos – oops, sorry!). Most windows in the building look out onto this communal space, while for visitors it’s the central focus around which their visit moves. The ovens – their rooves, chimneys, entrance arches – are also visible from many points, so the previous life of this working area is never eclipsed; you’re looking through the newly fired earthenware to where ceramics have been made for nearly 1000 years. The sense of continuity is palpable.
The architects, Miguel Hernández Valencia and Esther López Martín of Seville practice AF6, have done a superb job of designing a structure which preserves the original features, so key to the centre, while adding the second storey which wraps around the central patio, always allowing visitors to see down onto the kilns with their hotpotch of different-shaped chimneys. Their inspiration for the short tubes which make up the celosia, which are in vogue now, came from a range of sources, as Miguel explained to me.
The first time he and his colleagues visited the site, they were struck by the idea of kilns being built on top of each other, and also by the sight of many unfired pieces of pottery which they found stacked in cupboards. The idea of accumulation led them to the idea of using pieces of pottery piled up as the design motif.
Back to the tiles – I was shown some sections of original floors from the Santa Clara convent, recently converted into a cultural space, which date from the 15th century, being put together like a jigsaw puzzle with ceramic stars. Other sections dated from the 14th century, reminding me of the floor of a medieval church found in the crypt of El Salvador, as mentioned in my last blog post.
Other treasures being examined included boxes of old estarcidos (stencils) – designs marked out with pinholes through which carbonilla (charcoal) dust was passed. The tiles I saw being painstakingly restored and reassembled were from the 14th-16th centuries, along with pieces from La Cartuja, where the Pickman factory was located until 1982, although many more are due to arrive shortly from various museums in Seville: the Museo Arqueologico, the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, and the Museo Bellas Artes. Sources for the modern era pieces, along with Ceramica Santa Ana itself, also include the Colleccion Carranza.
As tiles are such a key part of Triana’s history – they’ve been made here for centuries, and Ceramica Santa Ana was an important local employer – a room is dedicated to this fiercely independent part of the city. Its flamenco, bullfighting and Semana Santa, corrales (shared courtyards), sailors and personalities are celebrate. Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, the patron saints of Seville, were pottery workers from Triana.
This Triana space is upstairs, along with rooms dedicated to Medieval (12th-15th century), Renaissance (16th century), Baroque (17th and 18th century) and Industrial tiles (19th and 20th century) – the ones I saw on this visit were largely from the medieval and industrial periods. I saw some large panels in the style of Pisano (named after the 15th-century Florentine artist Niculoso Pisano, who introduced the technique when he lived in Seville), where a design is painted directly over the tiles, creating a large picture made up of many tiles. One of Pisano’s most famous works is a retablo of the Virgin in the Alcazar.
But my favourites were some simple white stars on a blue background, dating from the 16th/17th centuries. They’re called olambrillas and are used alternately with plain terracotta tiles on the floor to make a pattern, as seen in the earlier tiles from Santa Clara which are being restored.
The centre, which has has successfully blended original existing features such as the the iconic brick ovens with the new structure, cost around 3.3 million euros, of which 60% was funded by the Junta de Andalucia, and 40% by the Ayuntamiento de Sevilla. This centre is an important addition to the cultural offering both of Triana – which also has Castillo San Jorge, the Inquisition Museum – just the other side of the market – but also of Seville.
There are plans to offer talleres (workshops) and courses, for adults and children, so visitors can get some hands-on experience of alfareria. When I asked if people who live in Seville would be allowed in free, as with other city monuments such as the Alcazar and the Setas, I was told that would depend on the company which manages the centre, although it is likely that locals would get free entry to the Triana section.
After my visit to the centre, I dropped in to see a potter, Antonio Campos, whose workshop is just round the corner – one of the very few left in Triana, appropriately enough on Calle Alfareria. We talked about the importance of visitors to the centre having the opportunity to observe the skill of a potter in action.”Tiene que ser un sitio vivo, no un museo“, Antonio told me. It should be a living place, not a museum. “La gente quiere ver, aprender y participar.” People want to see, learn and join in. Antonio has put in his own proposal and is waiting for a response – as an experienced artesan who’s been doing it for 30-odd years, he seems ideal for the job.
Centro Ceramica Triana is on the corner of Calle San Jorge and Calle Callao, next to Ceramica Santa Ana. The centre opens in early October.