Tiles, tiles, tiles. To visit Seville is to see tiles. So it’s only logical that on the third day that I visit this city so famous for its ceramics, I cross the bridge to the Triana district to visit Ceramica Ruiz. Piles of exquisite ceramics and heaps of different cups, plates, bowls and souvenirs fill the place. Behind the counter, 30 year old Patricio Traverso Carrero is the latest generation to run this shop. When he shows his wares, it is like getting a tour of the history of Triana.

And no wonder, the Triana district and the potters are very much linked. Crammed onto a virtual island between two branches of the Guadalquivir River, Triana has long been Seville’s outsider enclave. Until the 1850s, the district was linked to the rest of the city by a single floating bridge and labelled extramuros, or outside the walls.

Thanks to the abundance of easy-to-mould clay found on the banks of the Guadalquivir, Triana has also been known for its artisan ceramic-making since Roman times. The trade flourished under the Moors, who first made the azulejo tiles, and since Seville was their capital, it is still their biggest legacy here.

Fear of Empty Spaces

For ceramic lovers like me, the first stop in Seville is the Alcázar, Seville’s most famous attraction. The courtyards and cloisters are covered with ceramic tiles with these Islamic-inspired geometric motifs, used not just for decoration but as an effective way of combating the city’s high humidity. Here, you can see the Moorish tradition of horror vacui, or fear of empty spaces, the reason many walls were completely covered. Most of this palace was built after Spain was reconquered by the Christians, and the Muslim craftsmen remained. So apart from the geometrical designs inherited from the Muslims, there are also the naturalist forms of the Christians, showcasing a mixture of flora, fauna, coats of arms and other symbols.

Ceramica Ruiz might survive by selling colorful home-ware to tourists, Traverso’s real passion clearly lies in the geometric patterns of the old Azulejos. Nowadays, the old tiles are being sold, one by one, in the most fashionable antique dealers and lifestyle shops in Sevilla and Madrid. Traverso has piles of them in a small windowsill on the side of the shop, both old ones that are traded whenever an old building is torn down, and new ones from his workshop that he sells to the old palaces in the city, like Casa Pilato, for their restorations. “I had a client who bought my tiles and was arrested by the police. The police thought that these were illegally traded old tiles, but they had been newly made in my workshop. They spend a week in my factory trying to see the difference between the ones we make and the antique ones. Just to show you the quality of my ceramist.”

Italian Renaissance

Tile designs changed dramatically after the arrival of the Italian potter Niculoso Pisano, who died in Seville 1529. Pisano painted tiles in the new Italian style of the Renaissance and also manufactured a semi-industrial tile called arista. These were glazed, fired, then shaped with pliers and filed smooth. The raised lines on the rectangular press-molded arista relief keep the glazes from running together during firing.

Finally, during the industrial revolution the Englishman Charles Pickman started his empire as an importer of English industrial china in Cadiz, but soon set up shop in Seville. He purchased the former monastery of La Cartuja and started up his English factory there. The production style at La Cartuja represented an even more radical turn in local ceramic art, importing a new business model, assembly line production, technology, specialized labour, raw materials, product catalogues and sales strategies. These printed pieces are also for sale at ceramic Ruiz, but are clearly not the favorite of the men who sell them. Where is the fun in factory printed ceramics, if you can do them by hand, with plyers and minerals?

Electric Kilns

They might have had a glorious past, starting in the 1960s, most of the factories in Triana were forced to close. Coal-burning ovens were banned in 1970 to improve air quality and the last factory closed its doors in 2012. What is left for tourists is a visit to the Centro Cerámica Triana, a museum devoted to the history of ceramics in Seville, and the shops in Calle de Ceramica, where the Ruiz shop is right around the corner.

Traverso’s big dream, he tells me, is to open part of his workshop right here in Triana, where it belongs. Ceramic tile manufacture has modernized and the "Arab" kiln has been replaced with a cleaner electric one. “But the problem nowadays is where to start the workshop. Triana is now a popular place.”

Gypsy compounds

Just how popular, we find out when Traverso shows me one of Triana’s old living communities. This involves crossing through crowds of people who have gathered for one of holy week’s processions. For centuries, the bulk of Triana’s population was Roma, the descendants of groups of gypsies that had drifted into Spain from the east in the 15th or 16th centuries. Putting down roots in Seville, the Roma lived here in communal corrales de vecinos, compounds of small, crowded tenements arranged around a courtyard. The courtyard served as a laundry, meeting area, workplace and performance space for the gypsy flamenco parties. Several corrales have survived in Triana, and the one where Traverso lives is modernized and beautified with assorted greenery and, of course, tiles and ceramics on the walls. The old washing area is now filled with plants while the courtyard is now the place where people hang their washing. But the view of the river is still amazing.

Now that I know about the different kinds and styles, I see how tiles are everywhere. On the interior and exterior of churches, palaces, ordinary houses, schools, restaurants, bars and even railways or subway stations. They not only used as an ornamental art form, but also to advertise products. These millions of ceramic tiles, like the tile makers of Triana themselves, are as much a part of the city’s DNA as flamenco and bullfighting.

The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.