tile, one of the ceramic products used in building, to which group brick and terra-cotta also belong. The term designates the finished baked clay—the material of a wide variety of units used in architecture and engineering, such as wall slabs or blocks, floor pavings, coverings for roofs, and drainage pipes. In these products the distinction between terra-cotta and tile is often vague, and any small flat slab of ceramic material used for veneering is also called a tile.
The Ancient World
Tile-making evolved from primitive pottery manufacture, and the earliest architectural sites give evidence of the use of tiles. As soon as the art of glazing was discovered, it became possible to use the thin slabs of hard-burned clay, decorated in colors, as a decorative adjunct to architecture. This aesthetic use of tiles as a facing for walls distinguishes them from other ceramic products, such as brick, terra-cotta, and roofing units, which are essentially structural. Colored glazed tiles dated from 4700 BC have been found in Egypt.
Ancient ceramics were perfected in Mesopotamia. Large wall surfaces were faced with bas-relief decorations executed in enameled tiles resembling modern bricks in shape, most notably at the palace at Khorsabad (722–705 BC) in Assyria, near ancient Nineveh, and the Ishtar Gate (c.7th cent. BC) in Babylon. From these regions ancient Persia acquired ceramic techniques for the fine bas-reliefs of animals and archers in the palaces of Susa and Persepolis (5th cent. BC).
The earliest tile sewer pipes are those excavated at Crete (c.1800 BC). The Greeks also employed tile drains and conduits as well as tiles for roofing. Their architectural ceramics were mostly confined to cornices and cornice adornments and are customarily classed as terra-cotta. The Romans made wide use of floor tiles of various shapes and of floor mosaics, as well as a variety of wall tiles, including a type similar to modern hollow tiles, which were used in bathing establishments for the passage of warm air and smoke and as insulation. Roman tiles received no colored or glazed decoration.
The Islamic World
The Muslim peoples brought tile to its greatest splendor as a decorative medium. In the countries that came under their influence the tradition of a brilliant ceramic art is still active. Muslim architecture is distinguished by the lavish tile incrustations upon the exterior surfaces of walls, domes, and minarets, as well as in rooms, mosques, and patios. The Persians remained masters of tile decoration. Unsurpassed masterpieces of tile design were produced in Persia from the 12th to the 16th cent. Examples are the 15th-century Blue Mosque at Tabriz and numerous structures at Esfahan and Shiraz.
Europe and the Americas
Firmly established by the 11th cent., ceramics became an integral element of architectural decoration in Spain, chiefly for floors and wainscots, their richness exemplified in the Alhambra at Granada. From Spain the art was transmitted not only to Italy and Holland and from there to England, but also into Mexico by the Spanish conquerors. The Spaniards in Mexico developed a distinctive style from the 16th to 18th cent., especially applied in the external decoration of domes.
At Delft, Holland, tile manufacturing began early in the 16th cent., and by 1670 numbers of factories were making the celebrated blue-and-white Delft tiles, which enjoyed great popularity in N Europe and were exported to the American colonies for fireplace facings. In Holland tiles were used to cover large wall spaces in rooms, often being arranged to form complete pictorial murals. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland tiles were used to cover heating stoves as early as the Gothic period and into the 19th cent., and numbers of these, decorated and beautifully executed, still remain. In modern times the vastly increased use for tiles, as in bathrooms, kitchens, and swimming pools and in industrial buildings, has created an extensive tile industry.
See A. A. J. Berendsen, Tiles: A General History (1967); and C. H. de Jongé, Dutch Tiles (1971).