Terracotta is a ceramic material that has been used for building construction and decorative arts since ancient times in cultures around the world. The name literally means "baked earth," is it made from natural clay, which gives it a characteristic reddish-brown color. The color varies slightly depending on the clay used. Terracotta may be glazed for extra durability or to provide color. It is a waterproof and very sturdy material, and many ancient sculptures made from it are still in excellent shape.
This ceramic was widely used in the decorative arts of ancient China, perhaps most famously in the tomb soldiers of 2nd century BCE emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Terracotta vases and other sculptures are known from ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, West Africa, and Central and North America. Pipe made from it was also one of the oldest materials used in plumbing.
Though terracotta largely fell out of use in Europe during the Middle Ages, its use in building and sculpture revived in the Renaissance, and it has remained an important material into the modern era. Construction methods improved over the ages, as terracotta was once baked in the sun, later dried among ashes in the oven, and finally kiln-fired. While it was used to make roof tiles and bricks in the ancient world, it became more versatile as a building material during the Renaissance, when it features in the ornate decorations of buildings in the newly developed Gothic style. Terracotta was also a popular material for artistic sculpture in the Renaissance.
The Gothic revival style of architecture in the 19th century likewise made heavy use of terracotta, and the material became increasingly used for structural elements such as walls. Its durability and resistance to both fire and water make it an ideal building material. It is also lighter than stone, and modern methods allow it to be glazed in a wide variety of colors, including finishes that resemble stone or metal patina. Terracotta is a relatively inexpensive material, and glazing increases its durability and helps it retain its original look.
Terracotta remains a popular material in the decorative arts as well, particularly pottery and sculpture. Unglazed, it is ideal for planters, as it is semi-permeable to air and water. It is also amenable to sculpting into rather elaborate designs.