A global story
A 17th-century painting by Cristóbal del Villalpando shows the bustling El Parián market in the main plaza of Mexico City filled with shops and people. Here, goods from across the globe would be bought and sold, helping to transform the city into a fantastically wealthy, cosmopolitan one in the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain (c. 1521–1821). Chinese porcelains traded across the Pacific Ocean were one of many items that filled the Parián, and once there, they might stay in the city or travel across land or sea networks to be bought and sold elsewhere. They were even dispersed to the northern frontier of New Spain—to what is today the state of New Mexico in the United States—and throughout other viceroyalties in South America, attesting to the demand for blue-and-white porcelain throughout areas then controlled by Spain.
It is perhaps not surprising then that local potters in New Spain found inspiration in imported ceramics, like highly coveted Chinese porcelains, to create something unique.
Ceramics have a long, complex history in the country now known as Mexico, and among the most well-known today is talavera poblana, made beginning in the 17th century. It is a type of tin-enameled earthenware recognizable for its blue-and-white color but also made with a wider range of colors in later years. A white glaze forms the background of the ceramics, on which enameled designs could be painted. They were made in many different shapes and sizes, including cups, basins, vases, plates, urns, tiles, jardinières, and chocolate jars.
Talavera (known elsewhere as maiolica) is named after the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina that was famous for its ceramic production. Poblana indicates that it was made in the city of Puebla de los Ángeles, the second largest city in the viceroyalty of New Spain after Mexico City. Puebla became especially famous for its blue-and-white ceramics that, at least initially, adapted the appearance and forms of ceramics imported from elsewhere, including blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, and ceramics from Talavera de la Reina in Spain and elsewhere. For this reason, talavera poblana’s history and development connects Mexico not only to Spain’s own complex history, but also to different parts of Asia. In a nutshell—it’s complicated!
After the city of Puebla was founded in the years after the Spanish Conquest of 1521, Spanish artists, including ceramists, began to migrate to the Spanish colony, bringing with them new types of ceramic technology (such as the potter’s wheel) that diverged from longstanding local traditions among Indigenous groups.
These immigrant artists in Puebla also brought knowledge of tin-glazed earthenware that had long been popular in areas with prominent Muslim populations (especially in West Asia). Much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) was controlled by different Muslim kingdoms after 711 C.E., facilitating the importation of ceramics from across Asia, including tin-glazed earthenware, that would be adapted in Iberia. These traditions were then adapted by artists in New Spain.
To examine this interesting web of transpacific and transatlantic connections, let’s look closely at one example of talavera poblana made in Mexico.
An albarello from Puebla
On one side of a tall, slender blue-and-white jar made in New Spain, a bird appears on the banks of a pond, with a cactus rising from it; the jar’s other side shows flowers and a stylized landscape (not shown here). This jar is an albarello, which would have been placed on a shelf in a pharmacy to store herbs and other materials for medicinal purposes. In the 17th century, pharmacies were often associated with religious monasteries but were sometimes owned privately.  The lid is missing, but would have likely been made of an organic material (such as leather).
The albarello shape itself has a longer history, originating in Iran hundreds of years earlier. In one example from the 13th–14th century Ilkhanid period in Iran, we see a covered albarello, with the jar and lid glazed in a deep blue with gold designs. This type of albarello was known as lajvardina, for the lavish use of lapis lazuli (lajvard is the Persian word for lapis). Through trade, conquest, and itinerant artists and technologies, the albarello shape would become common on the Iberian Peninsula and eventually the shape was introduced to New Spain after the Spanish invasions of the Americas began in the late 15th century.
Each of the two decorative scenes fill most of the surface on the albarello’s two faces. On the side with the pond, the bird stands on the pond’s bank, its body gracefully curving in a serpentine shape. Its slender legs and long neck suggest it is a crane—a bird not native to Mexico. Yet in the pond we also have a cactus, locating us in Mexico. Other plant life is difficult to identify, but bushes and tall flowering plants grow on the sloping bank of the pond behind the bird. Three tiny birds fly in formation above the cactus. Stylized clouds appear in the sky above. On the upper rim of the jar, as well as the lower band of decoration, the artist has painted repeated abstract pattern to further animate the surface. Organic, tendril-like designs cover the remaining surface in between each of the scenes on either side. On the opposite side (not pictured) are chrysanthemum flowers, also not local to Mexico but commonly represented in Chinese ceramics.
The imagery and patterns on this albarello point to the varied sources that were adapted by artists in New Spain to suit the tastes of their clients. Decorative lobed bands that surround the two scenes are similar to those found on Ming dynasty ceramics from China. The bird also parallels cranes on Ming dynasty ceramics or even Japanese examples. Ming ceramics were a popular export item to New Spain on the Manila galleons, and so artists in Puebla would have had many examples from which to adapt motifs and decorative elements.
Between 1573 and 1815, Manila galleons arrived in Acapulco laden with Asian foreign imports, including Chinese porcelain; in return, resources from the Spanish Americas—silver the most important among them—would make their way to Manila, where they would be used to pay Chinese merchants for goods. As noted earlier, numerous Chinese blue-and-white wares decorated elite New Spanish homes and served as inspiration for local artists making talavera poblana. Acapulco was also the port at which Chinese porcelain would be transported overland to Veracruz, from where it would be shipped to Seville in Spain. On two of the earliest galleons to arrive, there were reputedly 712 pieces of silk and 22,300 porcelains. 
The decoration in the band at the bottom of the albarello is also similar to the alafia motif on lusterware pottery made in Spain. Lusterware looks different from tin-glazed earthenware because a metallic glaze gives it a shimmering, lustrous appearance. In one example—a lusterware pharmacy jar from Valencia—we can see the alafia motif in two bands, picked out in a brilliant blue. Alafia was actually a highly stylized inscription of “health and happiness” in Arabic, and was especially common on talavera poblana in the first half of the 18th century, demonstrating the adaptation of ceramics imported from the Iberian Peninsula.
A global story
The city of Puebla was an ideal center for the development of the ceramic tradition after which it was named (talavera poblana)—good local clay beds provided the material to manufacture vessels. Talavera poblana became especially popular after 1653, when a potters’ guild was established in Puebla by the Spanish emigré potter Antonio de Vega y Córdova and others. Some scholars have claimed, though, that talavera poblana was made even earlier.
Talavera flourished in the late 17th and 18th centuries, as the demand for blue-and-white ceramics continued to grow around the globe. The Puebla potters’ guild regulated the creation of wares, and even categorized them into different groups: yellow ware for cooking (loza amarilla), common ware (loza común), fine ware (loza fina), and later, refined ware (loza refina) notable for its Chinese porcelain inspiration. Along with the regulations in production, the guild only permitted membership for people of Spanish descent, though in reality rules were often bent.
Talavera poblana could be costly because of the excessive use of cobalt used to achieve the brilliant blues—cobalt was expensive and not local to Mexico. Cobalt had long been used in ceramics in Central and West Asia, and then in East Asia. Eventually it would be used in Spain beginning in the 13th century. Cobalt would have been imported to New Spain either from China or Spain (where it likely came from Central Asia or even North Africa by the 17th century). Still, despite the possible challenges with acquiring cobalt from afar, the interest in blueness among the New Spanish population remained constant.
Changes in taste
There are noticeable changes in the design elements of talavera poblana likely due to the result of shifts in taste over time. Earlier on there was a preference for more abstract, geometric, stylized forms. By the 18th century, there is a greater interest in scenes with flora, fauna, and figures as well decorative scenes. The decoration on the New Spanish albarello described above covers its entire surface, which was common of talavera poblana into the 18th century.
Polychromed ceramics became more popular by the early 19th century, as did new types of subject matter and motifs. It’s possible that this shift is the result of the Manila galleons ending in 1815, encouraging artists to seek out new ways of decorating ceramics.
A city of colorful tiles
Talavera poblana is an important part of the city of Puebla’s cultural heritage. It wasn’t just portable vessels that formed the tradition, but also the use of tiles to decorate architecture around the city and its surrounding environs. A façade might have blue-and-white or colorful tiles with abstract or floral designs creating patterns across the surface. There might be figural or narrative panels made of tiles as well. Talavera in all its forms became a distinct part of Puebla’s identity, and remains so today.
The talavera poblana industry experienced difficult moments in its history, almost completely collapsing at points, but those invested in seeing the industry prosper continued to find ways of maintaining it. Anyone visiting Puebla today is sure to come across the many workshops and stores selling it, or to encounter the numerous buildings that still include it. What might not be as obvious today as in the past is the complex web that connects its development to many other parts of the world.
 Other vessel shapes besides the albarello could be found in pharmacies too. One wonders why such a finely decorated jar such as this one would be placed on a shelf. Perhaps it would be turned after being handled to admire both faces of it.
 Chinese Ceramics in Colonial Mexico, p. 11
Margaret Connors McQuade, Talavera Poblana: Four Centuries of a Mexican Ceramic Tradition (New York: Americas Society, 1999).
Donna Pierce et al., ed., Asia & Spanish America: trans-Pacific artistic and cultural exchange, 1500–1850: papers from the 2006 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum (Denver: Denver Art Museum 2009).
Donna Pierce et al., ed., At the crossroads the arts of Spanish America & early global trade, 1492–1850: papers from the 2010 Mayer Center symposium at the Denver Art Museum (Denver: Denver Art Museum 2012).
Alfonso Pleguezuelo Hernández, Cerámica y cultura: The Story of Spanish and Mexican Mayólica (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003).
Meha Priyadarshini, Chinese Porcelain in Colonial Mexico: The Material Worlds of an Early Modern Trade (Springer International Publishing, 2018).
Sofía Sanabrais, “‘Desire and sought by the rest of the world’: Asian Art in the Hispanic World,” Art and Empire: the Golden Age of Spain, ed. Michael A. Brown (San Diego : The San Diego Museum of Art, 2019), pp. 143–158.
Charlene Villaseñor Black, “The Half-Life of Blue,” in Renaissance Futurities: Science, Art, Invention, ed. Charlene Villaseñor Black and Mari-Tere Álvarez (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2019), pp. 118–29.