cotto: history made modern in authentic italian terracotta

by clé tile | published: Sep 16, 2021

guilio romano, a modern terracotta wallcovering inspired by renaissance architecture.

as purveyors of tile, we are — unsurprisingly — obsessed with clay.

we’re experts on where it comes from, what’s in it, how it’s formed, how it performs, and how it’s used. we’re also extremely selective in what we choose to sell: some clays (and the artisanal skills used to transform them into tile) yield more beautiful, high-performing tile that stands the test of time. others don’t.

case in point: terracotta (which means “baked earth” in italian) from tile producer and clé partner fornace brioni. before we discovered them, we spent years looking for the kind of terracotta that so inspired us as we walked the streets of italy and southern europe: rich, deep, and strong enough to withstand centuries of inclement weather, pounding feet, vehicles, and even wars, only to grow warmer and more appealing as a result.

the city of bologna noted for its terracotta roofing.

it wasn’t until 2016 that we found it.

fornace brioni’s authentic cotto was the best we found in italy, and much of it is the result of the clay it uses. purity matters to this third generation artisan tile producer: it creates its cotto the way it’s been made for centuries: from clay and water. nothing else.

this clay used by fornace brioni, from the po river valley in northern italy, is rich and varied, resulting in a more striking color with greater character and depth than clays that are more uniform. this variation softens its intensity, allowing it to better blend with other materials and textures.

cristina celestino has reimagined classic design using listellos (left) and created modern terracotta tours de force with designs such as capriccio (right).

the purity of authentic cotto also means that over the years, the clay retains the same color and nature as it wears. like people, you see it soften and gain texture, but never change its essential character. unlike some other “terracotta,” its beauty is definitely not just skin-deep.

the clay also dictates how it’s worked and formed into tile. in keeping with tradition, fornace brioni’s authentic cotto is formed by hand using wooden molds. it’s a humble, time-honored, and pure process that preserves the integrity of both the clay and the craft of working it into tile.

local clay is crafted according to a century’s-worth of experience and tradition.

it’s also fired at lower temperatures, or in ceramics parlance, produced using a low-fire technique. in comparison, other clays, such as porcelain, require firing at higher temperatures, while stoneware lies somewhere in-between.

the temperature at which clay is fired makes a big difference, not just in texture or look, but in the relative strength and fragility of the material. think of porcelain, and how fragile it is. then, consider the three thousand year old terracotta figurines you may see in a museum, or the astounding terracotta warriors from china, from the late third century bce. or consider the terracotta pot you might cook with. the difference is the material from which they were made, and how they were produced.

a collection of molds used over time tells the story of each individual tile. local clay is crafted according to century’s-worth of experience and tradition.

it’s a matter of chemistry. in clay, as with many materials, there’s a trade-off between something that is strong because it’s hard and something that’s strong because it’s resilient.

the higher you fire something, like porcelain, the more tightly the clay particles fuse, the harder and more glass-like and fragile it comes. on the other hand, terracotta’s true strength comes from the fact that it’s fired at lower temperatures: the clay particles aren’t too tightly fused, which results in more air voids. those air voids make for a more resilient material, one that’s resistant to thermal shock and that withstands the elements. (a word to the wise: the term “terracotta tile” has over the years become generic for “reddish tile”. in some cases, that tile is high-fired clay which is inherently less resilient and durable.)

something as simple as a terracotta plank becomes an artisanal masterpiece in the hands of fornace brioni.

the fact that authentic cotto’s strength comes from its resilience and not hardness also means that when used as flooring, it will be more pleasant to walk and stand on–something to keep in mind if you plan to use it in a kitchen.

while fornace brioni employs centuries-old techniques, one of the things we most appreciate about it is how the company keeps pushing the boundaries of ways in which authentic cotto is used, transforming it from something primarily utilitarian into a powerful design statement.

bibiena is a terracotta duet that proves that the individual parts are as beautiful as the whole.

its partnership with celebrated designer and architect cristina celestino is an example of this boundary pushing. to usher in a new era of cotto, as the brioni brothers call it, celestino looked first to material and history for inspiration, and then added her signature touches that include a strong sense of geometry and sculpture along with a love of pattern and color play.

fornace brioni has reinvented terracotta, to offer new forms that create artful installation that elevate any space.

in many ways, every handful of clay is a piece of living history. and every piece of cotto tile is an extension of that history in human hands. we think of authentic cotto as the ultimate bridge between past, present, and future, creating the bond between ancient and modern. like all tile, it’s also the ultimate bridge between the utilitarian and the aesthetic, ideal for use on walls, patios, kitchens, and of course, roofs.

but we see one more bridge it creates: more than other tile, it will bear the mark of use, such that over time, it assumes some of the character and personality of anyone who has it in their home, making that person an indelible part of the history of this extraordinary tile and with just a little bit of care, extending that history far into the future.