Terracotta, terra cotta or terra-cotta, 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, which varies considerably.
Fired terracotta is not watertight, but surface-burnishing the body before firing can decrease its porousness and a layer of glaze can make it watertight. It is suitable for use below ground to carry pressurized water (an archaic use), for garden pots or building decoration in many environments, and for oil containers, oil lamps, or ovens. Most other uses, such as for tableware, sanitary piping, or building decoration in freezing environments, require the material to be glazed. Terracotta, if uncracked, will ring if lightly struck.
The Ancient Greeks' Tanagra figurines were mass-produced mold-cast and fired terracotta figurines, that seem to have been widely affordable in the Hellenistic period, and often purely decorative in function. They were part of a wide range of Greek terracotta figurines, which included larger and higher-quality works such as the Aphrodite Heyl; the Romans too made great numbers of small figurines, often religious. Etruscan art often used terracotta in preference to stone even for larger statues, such as the near life-size Apollo of Veii and the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Campana reliefs are Ancient Roman terracotta reliefs, originally mostly used to make friezes for the outside of buildings, as a cheaper substitute for stone.
European medieval art made little use of terracotta sculpture, until the late 14th century, when it became used in advanced International Gothic workshops in parts of Germany. The Virgin illustrated at the start of the article from Bohemia is the unique example known from there. A few decades later there was a revival in the Italian Renaissance, inspired by excavated classical terracottas as well as the German examples, which gradually spread to the rest of Europe. In Florence Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) was a sculptor who founded a family dynasty specializing in glazed and painted terracotta, especially large roundels which were used to decorate the exterior of churches and other buildings. These used the same techniques as contemporary maiolica and other tin-glazed pottery. Other sculptors included Pietro Torrigiano (1472–1528), who produced statues, and in England busts of the Tudor royal family. The unglazed busts of the Roman Emperors adorning Hampton Court Palace, by Giovanni da Maiano, 1521, were another example of Italian work in England. They were originally painted but this has now been lost from weathering.
Terracotta tiles have a long history in many parts of the world, covered in that article. Many ancient and traditional roofing styles included more elaborate sculptural elements than the plain roof tiles, such as Chinese Imperial roof decoration and the antefix of western classical architecture. In India West Bengal made a speciality of terracotta temples, with the sculpted decoration from the same material as the main brick construction.
Reusable mold-making techniques may be used for production of many identical pieces. Compared to marble sculpture and other stonework the finished product is far lighter and may be further painted and glazed to produce objects with color or durable simulations of metal patina. Robust durable works for outdoor use require greater thickness and so will be heavier, with more care needed in the drying of the unfinished piece to prevent cracking as the material shrinks. Structural considerations are similar to those required for stone sculpture; there is a limit on the stress that can be imposed on terracotta, and terracotta statues of unsupported standing figures are limited to well under life-size unless extra structural support is added. This is also because large figures are extremely difficult to fire, and surviving examples often show sagging or cracks. The Yixian figures were fired in several pieces, and have iron rods inside to hold the structure together.