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Fall 2004
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The Talavera Tiles—Bringing to Light and Preserving Historic Maps

A glimpse into the past was presented to attendees at this year's Esri International User Conference. Large murals of hand-painted Talavera tiles illustrated some of the most stunning maps from centuries past. The exhibit was a joint effort of Carlos Salmán Gonzalez, chief executive officer of Sistemas de Información Geográfica, S.A. (SIGSA) and SIGSA's Talavera Tile workshop, Talavera de la Luz. The mesmerizing pieces allowed onlookers to experience a bit of cartographic history.

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This is a Talavera tile representation of an oil painting on fabric by an unknown artist. The 17th century painting, held today in the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, is a panoramic view of Mexico City during colonial times.

Hundreds of vividly colored Mexican Talavera tiles formed the towering murals replicating many ancient maps. Talavera tiles, a special ceramic tile made only in Puebla, Mexico, are descendants of ceramic tiles that date back to the earliest civilizations. During the 16th century, Spanish monks from a monastery in Puebla, Mexico, sent for craftsmen from Talavera de la Reina, Spain, to teach the indigenous people in the region how to work with clay to decorate Spanish monasteries and churches with tiles. However, these people were already accomplished potters and had a long tradition of producing quality earthenware. This allowed them to easily learn how to use a potter's wheel and tin glazes, the main characteristics of Talavera tiles. Today, all Talavera workshops must follow strict guidelines, including only using clay from the Talavera zone in Puebla, Mexico; hand painting all pieces with six traditional mineral pigments; and other rules that give the tiles their unique and stunning appearance.

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This Talavera tile map is a replica of a plate from Dutch–Greek mathematician and cosmographer Andreas Cellarius' Harmonia Macrocosmica, a much esteemed celestial atlas published approximately 1660 during the golden age of Dutch cartography. The piece is an interpretation of Greek astronomer Ptolemy's view of the universe and the heavenly orbits. It includes constellation charts and portraits of mythical creatures.

Salmán first decided to create map murals using Talavera tiles seven years ago when SIGSA acquired the Talavera de la Luz workshop. "One day I was in Puebla, Mexico," says Salmán, "and I found a nice map of Puebla in an antique shop, so I decided to make the map in Talavera tiles and donate it to the city of Puebla." After Salmán created the first map, which is on display in one of the city's plazas, he realized that many maps made on perishable materials from long ago have been destroyed and might still exist if they had been created in Talavera tiles. This thought enticed him to start and build a collection of maps that represent important aspects of the history of cartography.

"I do a lot of research about the story of cartography, and I look for maps that have cartographic importance as well as aesthetic value," he says. "We try to combine the importance of the maps with their beauty."

As the collection of Talavera tile maps grows, so do Salmán's travels. He obtains copies of the maps he would like to use from around the world; from Turkey, China, and France, he seeks maps that will complete the collection. "It has taken us years to get good copies of some of the maps in order to reproduce them," he explains. "For instance, the original Catalan Atlas is in Paris and we couldn't find a copy with enough resolution, but we finally found it after years of looking."

The murals on display at the 2004 Esri International User Conference were a small sample of the collection. Talavera de la Luz is a small workshop, with only 15 people, so each map usually takes three to five months to create. The complete collection, which will contain maps from 6,000 years ago to recent maps, should be complete in six to 10 years. Once complete, Salmán's goal is to give the collection to the people of Mexico, either in a museum or as displays in various cities.

click to enlarge"The advantage of the Talavera tiles is that they can be put on display anywhere, including parks," says Salmán. "This will expose people to beautiful maps that they might never see otherwise. It is very difficult to get to see some maps, so we want to bring them to the people. I want people to know that cartography is also an art, not just a technique."

Currently, Talavera de la Luz is working on a mural of a map from the 15th century. The original map, created by the Italian monk Fra Mauro, took 25 years to create and illustrates both the many travels and the imagination of the monk, giving insight into the ideas and views of that point and place in history. Salmán also plans to add beautiful Chinese maps to the collection, which he discovered during his recent trip to China.

The Talavera tile murals bring the history of cartography to life, exposing an unknown world of adventure, discovery, and culture. As maps become more sophisticated, it is important to remember the history that makes them what they are today.

For more information, contact Talavera de la Luz (e-mail: talaveradelaluz@prodigy.net.mx, tel.: 52-222-246-12-15) or visit their Web site (www.talaveradelaluz.com).

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