When we speak about Puebla we inevitably think about the imposing volcanoes that guard her, the Popocateptl and Iztaccíhuatl , the culinary delicacies that were created in this state, such as Mole Poblano, its baroque architecture, and of course, the ceramic of Talavera, that adorns practically every building, every patio, every square and even kitchens.
Talavera is a type of majolica earthenware, a white and glazed type of ceramic. Although the Spaniards introduced this type of pottery, ironically the term Talaverais used much more in Mexico than in Talavera de la Reina, Spain.
In fact, Talavera is the oldest tin-glazed ceramic in America and it is still being manufactured with the same techniques as in the 16th Century.
Puebla not only was the second most important city in Mexico, after the country’s capital Mexico City, it was the most important earthenware center of the Nueva España, which was the name of Mexico in Colonial times.
The production of tiles and ceramic ware in Puebla, started almost immediately the city was established in 1531. Thanks to the abundance of quality clay in the region and to the splendor of the arts at that time in Puebla, in a short time the Talavera Poblana achieved such quality and beauty that it was soon exported to the rest of the continent.
There are several theories about its origin in Mexico, but the most accepted explanation is that Spanish monks from the Santo Domingo monastery in Puebla, sent for craftsmen from Talavera de la Reina to teach the indigenous people of the region how to work the clay so they could create pieces similar to the ones produced in Spain. They wanted to decorate with tiles and religious sculptures their monastery and church.
The indigenous people of Mexico were very accomplished potters and already had a very long tradition producing earthenware. But they did not know how to use the potters wheel or tin-glaze their pottery, which is one of the main characteristics of the majolica ceramic.
Other versions state that the Dominican friars were the ones that knew how to produce this type of ceramic and that they were the ones that taught the Indians how to do it.
The truth is there are documents that record the presence of several craftsmen from Talavera de la Reina in Puebla during the 16th Century, which established their workshops to produce tiles and ceramic wares. It was a very profitable business since there were so many churches and monasteries being built.
In time, a potter’s gild was formed and Ordinances were laid down, that all of the potters that wished to produce Talavera had to follow. This was done so that the quality of the ceramics called Talavera was uniform and that this earthenware had a distinctive style and excellence.
Some of the rules established by the Ordinances were:
The color blue was to be used on the finest ceramic. This was so because the mineral pigments needed to produce this color were very expensive. The customer could then easily distinguish the quality of fine ceramic from one of lesser quality.
To avoid falsifications each master potter had to sign or mark his products.
Three types of earthenware were to be produced depending on the quality of the pieces: Fine, Semi fine, and for Daily use.
Yearly there were to be examinations that the craftsmen had to pass in order to be considered master potters.
When we look at the plates, jars, vases, and tiles, we can detect the confluence of several extraordinary cultures in this type of art. We can easily observe distinctive characteristics of Spanish, Arabic, Italian and Chinese origin, and of course the magnificent creativity of the Mestizos and Indigenous people of Mexico.
Arabic: in its designs and use of mineral pigments. Keep in mind that the Moors conquered Spain and had tremendous influence on all the artistic expressions of Spain.
Italian: it is from this Mediterranean country that the term Majolica originates, and it refers to a process that the Italians used since the 14th Century to produce ceramics. This technique consisted of applying or brushing pigments on raw or unfired glaze.
Spanish: It is from Spain that the technique is brought to Mexico, with a distinctive style that came from Talavera de la Reina.
Chinese: Because of the extensive imports from China to Mexico, Chinese ceramic was soon imitated, particularly their designs. You can observe this similarity specially on the blue Talavera.
Mexico: It is Mexican artistry and creativity that makes of Talavera, a contemporary art form.
It was during the 18th Century that Talavera “dresses up” with colors: green, mauve, yellow, in addition to the blue tones so popular in the 16th and 17thCenturies.
Talavera was not limited to the production of pots, plates, jars and religious figures. It reached other spheres of life in Puebla. The azulejos, tiles, decorated splendidly cupolas, façades of monasteries and buildings, and was the quintessential element of Puebla’s baroque architecture. They were splendidly used in kitchens, this fantastic culinary “laboratories” from which so many dishes were created.
It is a real esthetical treat to stroll through the colonial streets of Puebla and be able to see this splendid architecture, the marvelous creativity that reached all spheres of this city’s life.
The use of azulejos denoted the prosperity of the owners of a particular house or building. So much so, that a popular saying at that time stated that someone that wouldn’t amount to anything in life would never have a Casa de Azulejos or a house of tiles.
Now a days, Talavera is still very popular, and pieces of extraordinary quality that are very expensive are still being produced. Unfortunately there are also many poor imitations. When you buy an authentic Talavera piece, it must be signed at the base by the workshop that produces it, and it must state that it is from Puebla.
Talavera is the name given only to the earthenware produced in Puebla.
If you have a chance to go to Puebla, don’t miss the opportunity to learn and admire this centuries old tradition.