Clay Culture: Madrid’s Street Signs

Incorporating the long, rich tradition of ceramics in Spain with scenes from the city’s history, one artist created street signs to help Madrid’s locals and visitors alike to get their bearings.

Ceramic art isn’t only a historical document in the definition of world cultures from prehistory to the present, but also an important legacy in terms of shedding light on the future. The cultural and aesthetic diversity in Spanish ceramics, formed by continuing to use and adapt historical techniques, makes these objects significant.

The Origin of Spanish Ceramics

Spanish tin-glazed pottery has its origins in the Arab-Andalusian culture and developed through interaction with the aesthetic and exuberant Mediterranean culture and techniques on the Iberian Peninsula, where Muslims lived between the 8th and 15th centuries and where Portugal and Spain are located today. Arab ceramic artists, who settled in the region in the 8th century, made low-fired products finished using a variety of techniques: slip coating and glazing using oxides, decorating patterns using cuerda seca, and painting colored in-glaze pigments on the raw glaze.¹ The latter was later adapted and named majolica by the Italians in the 14th century. Ceramics, which were previously monochrome, became very colorful over time, especially under the influence of Europe and started to include regional motifs.²

Workshops in Toledo, Manises, Baterna, and Valencia were pioneers of Spanish ceramics. Another center of pottery production is Talavera de la Reina, a region near Toledo, where products are made with majolica techniques. In Talavera ceramics (named for the region), bisque-fired pieces are glazed with a stiff white glaze containing tin. Decorating is done using a brush to apply colored oxides and pigments on this raw glaze. With the invasion of Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, the Talavera ceramic tradition was carried to Mexico.³

When we look at Spanish ceramics today, we see that the traces of the past as a ceramic culture exist in harmony with today’s urban life. On a research trip to Spain, my colleagues and I examined historical Arabic ceramics traditions and their continued influence in the cities of Madrid, Toledo, and Talavera de la Reina. This included looking at ceramic works that adapt to the city, and especially the informative ceramic street signs that can be considered as cultural heritage in terms of production technique and history.

1 Calle De Bordadores, approximately 23⅝ x 23⅝ in. (60x60 cm). Photo: Basilio.

2 Calle De Arenal, approximately 23⅝ x 23⅝ in. (60x60 cm). Photo: Basilio.

Keeping History Alive

Street signs direct hundreds of people walking around in cities everywhere. For those visiting the Madrid area without using a smart phone, their biggest helpers will undoubtedly be the street signs, each one of which is eye-catching. These signs, produced in the Talavera technique by Spanish ceramic artist Alfredo Ruiz de Luna González, offer a visual feast to street travelers in the Madrid area.

Ruiz de Luna González is from the third generation of an established family of ceramic artists. His grandfather, Juan Ruiz de Luna, had a factory in the city of Talavera de la Reina where he produced ceramics. Established in 1908, the Nuestra Señora del Prado ceramic factory produced Talavera ceramics until it closed in 1961.4 With a love and talent of ceramics coming from family heritage, Ruiz de Luna González created ceramic street signs in 1992 that keep Talavera ceramics alive and remind the people of the historical texture of the city. He made approximately 1500 street signs for the Madrid City Council. In these works, the artist especially transferred the etymological origin of the region to ceramic tiles in the traditional Talavera technique with a pictorial expression in his own style.

3 Calle De Carretas, approximately 23⅝ x 23⅝ in. (60x60 cm). Photo: Pedro Reina.

4 Calle del Leon, approximately 31½ x 31½ in. (80x80 cm). Photo: Luis García.

Madrid’s Ceramic Street Signs

The name of the street formerly known as Calle de San Gines was inspired by the silk embroiderers working there and was later named Calle de Bordadores (1). There are two figures of people embroidering on the street sign.

The Calle del Arenal street sign (2) takes its name from the Arenal stream that existed before the renewal of the area and circled the city. On the street sign, you can see two figures working in the sand brought by the stream flow. The figures’ clothes accurately reflect the period in which they lived. The historical palace in the background is magnificently placed on the street sign.

Figure 3 shows the sign for Calle de Carretas. According to the narrated anecdote, barricades were set up to defend the city during the uprising in the 1520s, and horse or ox carriages were also used as barricades. For this reason, the street was named carretas, which means carriage. The sign depicts figures reflecting the period, ox carriages, barricades, and the city.

The street sign of Calle del Leon can be seen in figure 4. Although the origin of the name isn’t known exactly, it is believed that it originated from a lion who lived in a cage there, and was shown for money by a foreigner who owned it. Detailed renderings of the lion and its owner are seen in the image.

5 Calle De Toledo, approximately 31½ x 31½ in. (80x80 cm). Photo: Basilio.

Figure 5 shows the sign for Calle de Toledo. This street, starting from Plaza Mayor and extending past the Toledo Gate, takes its name from the city of Toledo, which was the capital of Spain before Madrid. On the sign, the castle of the city of Toledo and the Alcántara Bridge on the Tagus River can be seen.

Cultural heritages are the most precious treasures of our world. The place of ceramic works in these heritages is critical because ceramic art creates a link between the past and the future and is a document for future periods, while also being a source of inspiration for today’s ceramic artists.

Street signs made by Alfredo Ruiz de Luna González incorporate all these mentioned features. The signs exemplify a technical tradition of ceramics, provide information about the past structure of the region, and at the same time help people to find their direction. In this way, the artist endeavored to transfer, endear, sustain, and preserve the cultural heritage for the next generations in modern life.

Notes
1. Cooper, Emmanuel. 10,000 Years of Pottery, British Museum Press, London, 2000.
2. Lang, Gordon. 1000 Tiles, HerbertPress, London, 2008.
3. Çobanli Z., Özdemir A.D,: “Talavera Ceramics”, https://serfed.com/upload/21.pdf.
4. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfredo_Ruiz_de_Luna_Gonzalez.
1–5 Alfredo Ruiz de Luna González’ Madrid street-sign ceramic tiles, 1992. All images: CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

the author Dilek Alkan Özdemir received her PhD in 2006, and since 2013 has been working as an associate professor at Anadolu University School for the Handicapped in Eskişehir, Turkey, where she works with hearing-impaired students. To learn more, visit https://akademik.anadolu.edu.tr/dalkan/sanatsal-faaliyetler.

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