Next time you visit Budapest, take a glance up to some of the roof tops. From Ödön Lechner’s art nouveau creations topped with blue, yellow and green tiles to the Central Market Hall, architectural tiles and ceramics have become a cornerstone in Hungarian architecture, all thanks to Zsolnay, a manufacturer of ceramics, porcelain and tiles.
Go beyond Budapest and head down to the southern part of the country to the city of Pécs – perhaps one of Hungary’s most beautiful cities – if you want to go beyond and explore this unique part of Hungary’s applied arts heritage further. Pécs captures an eclectic feel that goes beyond your usual Central European city with green spaces, wide plazas and pedestrianised streets lined with cafés, there is a more southern feel to the city. Its complex cultural history can be felt with the relics that were left behind from 150 years of Ottoman occupation. At the heart of the city, the Dzsámi, a former mosque of pasha Qasim the Victorious, which like the Mezquita of Cordóba in Andalucia, now functions as a church has become synonymous with the city itself.
Pécs is also a city famed for its playing an important role in Hungarian art nouveau, or rather Szecesszió, due to its heritage as being the epicentre of producing Zsolnay tiles and ceramics. The ornate factory, where buildings are lined with glazed and colourful rooftops and ceramics adorn the walls, has now been converted into a contemporary cultural complex with various exhibits dedicated to the famous porcelain as well as other museums and restaurants.
The Zsolnay Quarter captures the essence of the fin de siècle grandeur of the manufacturer, where gilded chimneys dot the skyline of the complex. The original factory was built in the 1850s by Miklós Zsolnay for the construction of stoneware and ceramics. The glazed tiles and intricate vases and porcelain soon gained worldwide recognition after appearing in a variety of world fairs and winning many prizes, becoming synonymous with Hungary’s contribution to the art nouveau scene.
At the end of the 19th century, the Zsolnay factory made a couple of breakthroughs in the world of ceramics. The first came from a new technique of porcelain production using eosin, a red fluorescent dye that is a bromine derivative of fluorescein or other derivatives, which brought in a new world of porcelain after Zsolnay started manufacturing eosin-based ceramics in 1893. Materials made with eosin resulted in unique looking materials accented with a slight reddish iridescence and a metallic hue. However, overtime this expanded to include other colours such as green, blue, red and purple. This unique type of ceramic production became popular with art nouveau and Jugendstil artists who loved to work with this unique material that changed colours with the light, which you can see featured on the Zsolnay Fountain at the heart of Pécs or in the ceramics found in the museums in the city.
The second breakthrough to come out of the Zsolnay factory occurred a couple of years later with the production of pyrogranite – a new frost resistant, durable type of glazed ceramics that’s ideal for roof tiles and decorative elements in architecture.
Pyrogranite is produced by firing the ceramic at high temperatures, making it both frost and acid resistant. You’ll see this kind of tiling all across Hungary and in surrounding countries, like in those Subotica or Bratislava. The most famous buildings using the unique Zsolnay pyrogranite tiles are those by Ödön Lechner.
Examples of Zsolnay’s innovative ceramics lie across Pécs, from the exhibitions in the Zsolnay Quarter, including their experiments with pink ceramics to other-worldly art nouveau vases, but also the Zsolnay Museum in the city centre offers an overview of the ceramics and its history. However architecture lovers simply just need to look up the at the buildings, from the Puppet Theatre and other details found in the Zsolnay Quarter to the rooftop of the post office building.
Finally, the final stop on this pilgrimage of ceramics, only a few minutes away from the Zsolnay Quarter, the family Mausoleum sits perched up on a hill. Lions line the walkway leading up to the conical shaped mausoleum topped with glazed tiles, enclosed by a wall and a leafy garden.
This peaceful spot marks the resting place of a family who changed Hungarian architecture and brought incredible tiles, ceramics and porcelain to the world. Pécs is not only a beautiful city with a mediterranean joie de vivre, but one that plays an important part in Hungary’s arts and crafts heritage.