History and origins of ceramics: the material that was invented twice

Seo Emmemedia

Ceramics as we know it today is not so different from that of a few millennia ago. But when was it invented? Let's take a little journey into the history and origins of ceramics.

Its first peculiarity is that it was invented twice, in Mesopotamiae and in Japan. A discovery that took place in very distant places, geographically and culturally, but which had the same modalities and the same purposes.

Ceramic is a very popular material especially in Italy, and appreciated also in the rest of the world.
The history of ceramics is long and complex, but before making a brief summary of it, let's answer a much more concrete question: what is ceramic?

What is ceramic?

The word ceramic comes from the ancient Greek κέραμος, "kéramos", which means "clay" or "potter's land". It is an inorganic and non-metallic material, which is very ductile in its natural state and becomes hard after cooking.

With ceramics it is possible to produce many objects, both useful and of simple decoration, such as crockery, kitchen tools, vases, knick-knacks, but also tiles, coatings, bricks, above all thanks to its high heat resistance.

Since the ceramic has developed, more or less simultaneously, in various parts of the world distant from each other, there are different types depending on the work:

  • Porous paste ceramics: they have an absorbent and quite tender paste, easily scratched. It is made up of majolica, pottery and terracotta.

  • Compact paste ceramics: they have a paste with a very low porosity coefficient, are impermeable to gases and liquids and cannot be scratched even with a steel tip. It includes stoneware and porcelain.

The origins of ceramics

Some remains of objects made of ceramics date back to the Neolithic period and are mainly kitchen utensils. The oldest traces have been found in some caves of Yuchanyan, in China.

As we have already mentioned, it seems that his invention took place in two different places on the globe, between the Saharan populations and in Japan. The first ceramic objects appear raw and exclusively functional, tableware and utensils modeled by hand and cooked directly on the fire. It was when the Sumerians invented the pedal lathe that the ceramic began to be modeled in a more graceful and symmetrical way, so much so that it was also used for objects of pure decoration.

In the III millennium BC ceramics finally arrived in Europe, in Greece where several large production centers were built. Shortly thereafter, the Roman pottery spread in the Roman Empire, famous for its relief decorations, in use until the end of the Empire. In the 1000 BC, then, majolica was invented, as an imitation of oriental ceramics.

Ceramics from the late Middle-Age to the 1900s

In the late Middle-Age ceramics were made in a way quite close to modern ones. The lathe was used, the ceramic was baked in the oven and then waterproofed with a specific varnish. Soon, it was also possible to make more sophisticated decorations using colors. It is in this period that a long tradition in the production of ceramics begins in Italy, especially in the cities of Orvieto, Siena and Faenza.

For several centuries, there were many innovations in the processing of this material, up to the '700, when the German Böttger in Meissen created a very hard ceramic, thanks to the discovery of kaolin. At the end of the 1800s, the production of ceramics accelerated thanks above all to industrialization. In Modena, for example, a technique was invented that increased the production of tiles. Around 1950 there was the invention of the automatic press and the tunnel kiln, improvements that made it possible to sustain the ever-increasing demand for ceramics in Italy, until in the 70s the atomizer was invented, which allowed a faster drying of the material.

The masters of Italian ceramics

In Italy, therefore, pottery production began in the Middle-Age, even though it was already present in the imperial age. The first workshops of ceramic artisans were born in Tuscany and in Emilia Romagna in particular, where in '400 the ceramics became the most used coating material for churches and private buildings.

The success of ceramics continued even in the Renaissance, when the masters of Italian ceramics began to make themselves known and appreciated in the rest of the world, making Made in Italy a guarantee of beauty and quality.