Terracotta Decorations in the North Adriatic
Terracotta Decorations in the North Adriatic

By Elisa Emaldi, Paola Novara | Museo Nazionale di Ravenna (Ministero della Cultura)


The early Renaissance terracotta decorations that adorn the buildings of the city of Emilia-Romagna are a characteristic element of the region. The large availability of clay that the territory offers has led to the widespread use of brick, both in construction and for decorative purposes. But in Ravenna, a few centuries earlier, the terracotta decoration had a very particular nuance of use. The National Museum of Ravenna possesses among its early medieval archaeological sculptures an interesting corpus of approximately twenty reliefs carved in terracotta tiles dated between the 10th and the 14th century. Those sculptures, used as facade decoration both in religious architecture and later in civil buildings, have plant and animal motifs and are typical of the Adriatic region. The oldest elements of the museum’s lapidary belong to two religious buildings located near Ravenna, the monastery of Sant’Adalberto in Pereo, early 11th century, and the hostel for pilgrims (xenodochium) of San Pietro in Vincoli, middle of the 11th century. For both destroyed buildings, the existing comparison is the 11th century decoration of Santa Maria di Pomposa in the ancient diocese of Ravenna (50 km north), which has preserved the decoration in its original layout. The terracotta friezes still decorate the façade of the vestibule, with bands extending along its entire length, with arched lintels on the columns of the entrance and surrounding as a circular frame two lateral stone paterae. The linearity of the median frieze is interrupted by two terracotta crosses and enriched by tiles with fantastic animals.

The same types of terracotta attested in Ravenna are present throughout the upper Adriatic basin, starting from Romagna (with some examples also in Rimini as well as in Ravenna) then, through Venice and Torcello, up to Dalmatia and Croatia, from Cres to Zader. In Dalmatia, a well-studied case is the original facade of the abbey church of St. Mary in Zadar, which was consecrated in 1091. The terracotta fragments found in the archaeological excavations of the abbey church (now in the Archaeological Museum in Zadar), decorated with plant motifs similar to the Italian ones, bring on their back Roman ordinal numbers. These marks, never found on Italian tiles, perhaps served as an indication to ensure that the terracotta tiles would be placed in the right order on the wall. These are precious indicia that the terracottas were produced in the Venice-Ravenna area and then brought to the opposite Adriatic shore.

In all the above-mentioned cases, the decorative elements have the same characteristics: modular blocks, used to form ribbon-like bands and crosses, are decorated with two wicker branches in opposing spirals and include leaves or bunches of grapes, animated mainly by birds and quadrupeds. Next to these, rectangular or cuspidate tiles contain single images of fantastic hybrid animals: often is the dog-lion and a variant of the simurgh, the winged dragon-peacock of the Sassanid tradition.


The iconographic models of the terracotta tiles can be traced in the ornamental themes and repertoire of the sumptuary art widespread in the Near East, whose transmission in the West probably occurred through the diffusion of fabrics produced especially in Syria and in the Constantinopolitan area. The decorative repertoire, drawn from the Sassanian tradition, became popular both in the art of Byzantium and Western Europe and also in Islamic art from the 7th century onward. Using tiles arranged in series to form endless decorations, which embrace the entire width of the wall without any connection with the structure of the building, constituted also a real innovation, a foreign taste acquired in the West and mediated through Byzantine works of art, an appropriate decoration for religious and secular purposes.

Similar decorations were once in the basilica of San Marco in Venice, and their role is still much discussed; these bricks were recovered between 1860 and 1877 down the church’s walls and are currently exhibited in the cloister of St. Apollonia. Very similar to the Ravenna and Pomposa examples, they have been variously attributed to the “second” or to the “third” phase of construction of the church of San Marco, that means to the reconstruction of the building commissioned by Doge Pietro Orseolo after the fire of 976 or to the reconstruction promoted by Doge Contarini, undertaken in 1063 and completed in 1091. This doubt leaves open the hypothesis that the Venetian Basilica has absolute precedence for this decorative form over the remaining production documented or discovered in the upper Adriatic basin. This could also support the transmigration of the trend: terracotta tiles were imported from the Venice-Ravenna area to the Croatian coast, economically and culturally linked with Ravenna during the Exarchate dominion, and then to Venice. The Adriatic has long been a bridge rather than a rift, with different cultures and languages mirroring each other. The koine on both sides of the Adriatic may also have been strengthened by the bond between eminent abbots and Benedictine monks who shared a common religious, artistic and ideological background.

Whereas same motifs, such the grapes and vines are partly of Greek-Roman origin and were also used in Ravenna in Late Antique art, the Orientalizing character of the tiles’ decorations is evident: the whole repertoire goes beyond the decorations of printed terracotta present in northern Italy in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, introducing populated spirals and animals symmetrically approached to the Tree of Life, fighting animals, griffins and other fantastic animals, as well as some marginal iconographic connotations, such as, for example, generally marking birds and fantastic animals with the fluttering pativ, a symbol of royalty in the Sassanid culture peculiar to the iconography of the Near East. We can assume that it is the contact with the Byzantine world that has maintained some motifs, figures and animals in circulation, in some cases from their Sassanid origin down to their Romanesque outcome.

As for the “Iranian Glory”, the senmurv or simurgh, the winged creature with a composite nature and gifts, and with similar fabulous creatures composed of parts of diverse animals to underline different symbols, or the sacred plant icons related to life, eternality and cure, it is impossible to define to what extent the original meaning had kept intact its symbolic value in time and space. Other than indicating the Way to the faithful, the building decoration could have had a deeper meaning, echoed within a global culture. Positive, apotropaic, energetic symbols enveloped the building while the silk robes, embroidered with similar motifs, dressed the kings or wrapped the saints’ remains. The decorated tiles exalted a declaration of faith, show wealth, respond to a desire for beauty, protect and shield users.

Little by little, however, the decorative vocabulary of the East was forgotten and in many parts of Italy another type of terracotta decoration embellished the external walls of churches and palaces with a new strong style, and reflecting the taste of the period: at the end of the Middle Ages, new masters, such as Pollaiolo and Mantegna, revived classical motifs through drawings after the Antique, copied and reproduced in admirable friezes.

Further Reading

Novara, Paola. S. Adalberto in Pereo e la decorazione in laterizio nel ravennate e nell’Italia settentrionale (secc. VIII-XI). Mantova: Padus, 1994.

This monograph offers a detailed study of the decorative form documented in the National Museum of Ravenna. The museum conserves materials from various sources. In some cases, the origin is unknown. The largest group comes from the monastery of St. Adalberto in Pereo (from the place on Sant’Alberto, near Ravenna). Other materials come from St. Pietro in Vincoli, where there was a hostel for pilgrims.

Novara, Paola. “S. Adalberto in Pereo.” In Alle origini di Sant’Alberto: materiali per una ricerca, 85-116. Ravenna: Montanari, 2000.

This essay updates and deepens what was written in the 1994 monograph. It concerns in particular the materials coming from the monastery of St. Adalberto in Pereo.

Novara, Paola. “Per un catalogo del Territorio Decimano nel medioevo”, in In agro decimano... Per un catalogo del patrimonio storico archeologico del territorio a sud di Ravenna, 203-210. Ravenna: Montanari, 2000.

This essay updates and deepens what was written in the 1994 monograph. It concerns in particular the materials coming from S. Pietro in Vincoli.

Jakšić, Nikola. “The Eleventh-Century Façade Decoration of St. Mary’s Abbey Church in Zadar.” In Abbatissa ingenuitate precipua – The Proceedings of the Scientific Colloquium “The 950th anniversary of the Benedictine Monastery of St. Mary in Zadar (1066-2016),” edited by Pavuša Vežić and Ivan Josipović, 133-142. Zadar: University of Zadar: The Monastery of St. Mary in Zadar, 2020.

St. Mary’s church of the Zadar Monastery of the Benedictine Nuns had in the 11th century a facade with decorations carved in terracotta. The surviving fragments are very similar to the ones of the vestibule of Pomposa. The similarities of these artistic waves in the two opposing Adriatic coasts are thoroughly examined.

Skoblar, Magdalena, ed. Byzantium, Venice and the Medieval Adriatic: Spheres of Maritime Power and Influence, c. 700-1453. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

The book is an important historical synthesis for the period in which the balance of the area - a European key for cultural and commercial relations with Byzantium - changes: and Ravenna looks helplessly to the rise of Venice.

Elisa Emaldi, Paola Novara, "Terracotta Decorations in the North Adriatic," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023, https://mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu.