History and tradition of Italian pottery
Ceramics, with its wide and varied use and its precious artistic tradition, has been part of the history of mankind since the most remote times. The art of making ceramics is in fact one of man’s most ancient activities, dating back to around 6500 B.C.
Made with earth, water, and fire, very simple elements but very necessary to human existence itself, ceramics have seen, during the course of times, the evolution of their use and function.
By starting as a simple object created just for practical, daily activities it has become, thanks to a more artistic and elaborated workmanship, a fine object of art, destined to the most sophisticated ornamental ends.
Ceramics have been produced in many areas and countries, and Italy has certainly always been one of the most well-known. The art of making ceramics has seen its flourishing in Italy when the Ancient Greek potters transplanted their thriving activity along the coasts of Southern Italy. This activity, assimilated by the local Etruscan and Italic potters, gave rise to a tradition, rich in productive and creative ideas. It is in the period between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a most artistically fertile age, that the art of making ceramics really throve, thus transforming the works of talented Italian ceramists and artists to the art form that remains to this day.
And it is thanks to its perfect combination of function and art that still today, in modern times, ceramics gives that touch of practical and ornamental beauty that surely lends warmness and style in almost every Italian house.
What is Ceramics and what is Majolica?
The word ceramic derives from Keramos, the Greek name for fired clay (“terra bruciata”), and in modern languages, it is still used to indicate any object made of clay. Ceramics is a singular noun referring to the art of making things out of ceramic materials. Majolica is the word generally used for enameled and decorated ceramics.
The very earliest examples of majolica date back to the 9th century in Baghdad and Mesopotamia. By the 13th century, traders were importing majolica into Italy through the Isle of Majorca, headquarter of trading vessels sailing between Spain and Italy. The Italians thought that this new type of ceramics originated from the Isle of Majorca and therefore called it Maiolica, regardless of its place of origin. As soon as Italian potters encountered this new way of making ceramics, they began to create their own majolica, firstly by coping with the Spanish and Islamic designs, then mixing and adding their very own. It is during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in the Renaissance period, that majolica reached its peak of artistic quality in Italy.
A visit to the Museum of Deruta ceramics is very helpful to visualize the evolution of Italian pottery from the 13th century earthenware to the sophisticated Renaissance majolicas.
The making of majolica
The creation of Majolica is a complex “Five-Step” creative process that remains the same as it was 500 years ago.
First Step: The Potter
The potter will create a piece by hand shaping and hand turning it on a wheel using a plain lump of refined clay.
The moulded clay piece is called "In Terra" (Green ware) and is placed in the open air for natural drying.
When it dries it assumes a light grey colour and it is ready for its first firing in the kiln.
Second Step: The First Firing
The dried piece is loaded onto large racks and wheeled into the kiln. The first firing is done at 1890° Fahrenheit (1030° Celsius). After the firing, the kiln must remain closed for hours to allow the temperature to cool gradually, as a dramatic change in temperature could cause cracking. It is during this firing that the piece, now referred to as “Biscotto” (Bisque), acquires the typical terracotta red colour.
Third Step: The Glazing
Once cooled, the bisque is dipped into a bath of fast drying liquid glaze called “Primo Bianco” (First white) or “Smalto” (enamel). The Bisque, now wholly covered by the white powdery glaze, is ready for painting. This fine powder will prevent the colours from spreading and blurring into each other during the painting and will bond with the subsequent coloured glazes during the final firing.
Fourth Step: The Painting
The artist may paint a decoration freehand, or may use a "Spolvero", a sort of pounce, to create a type of stencil for more complex patterns. The glazes used to produce the colours are in some cases quite different from the colours that emerge after the final firing.
Fifth Step: The second Firing
In this final step, the painted item is loaded again into the kiln for a second firing at 1690° Fahrenheit (920° Celsius). This delicate process requires great care to avoid scratching or touching any item to be fired. The final firing may take up to 24 hours with more than 12 hours of constant high heat. Like the first firing, it is necessary to let the kiln cool down naturally to avoid the devastating effects of “thermal shock”.
The lustre technique
Gubbio lustres are famous worldwide thanks to the masterpieces of Giorgio Andreoli, who arrived there in 1498.
Mastro Giorgio had worked out his own secret formula for majolica lustre, a sophisticated technique employed in the decoration of majolica during the Renaissance period. It consisted of a beautiful iridescent effect obtained applying silver, copper and other substances on a previously glazed majolica. A third firing in very complex conditions was the key of the process.
Mastro Giorgio’s polychrome pottery was so beautiful that he soon became the favourite supplier of noblemen, dukes and the Pope. His original recipes were lost, making it impossible to replicate the outstanding results obtained by the ancient ceramicist. Nowadays only a handful of ceramists in Deruta and Gubbio use the lustre technique, since it is complicated, time consuming and it can easily thwart any potter’s ambitions. When most potters have produced their final product, the lustre potter is just starting on the most hazardous stage.
Most of the lustres produced in modern times are obtained by means of transparent iridescent colours, simply painted on the majolica.
The “spolvero” technique
The “spolvero” technique is used by ceramics painters to draw elaborate and repetitive pattern. Spolvero means “dusting”. In fact, they outline the design by dusting powdered charcoal through pinpricks previously made on a thin paper with the original pattern. The painters use the drawing to keep the uniformity of the pattern which is always hand-painted.
The istoriato ware
Istoriato is an Italian word meaning story telling.
It is a classic style of Renaissance featuring narrative scenes and figurative subjects. It was much admired and sought after by important patrons of maiolica. The development of this style meant the Italian Maiolica was evolving from utilitarian products to articles of luxury and high art. Masks, grotesques, arms trophies, dolphin headed scrolls, flowers, baskets of fruit, winged cherubs, and banners with inscriptions, legendary labours of ancient heroes, biblical references with classicised interiors, trophies and coats of arms, music, portrait medallions, human figures and winged monsters were all motifs of the period, painted on large ornamental pieces. The most popular products were the beautiful chargers with profile portrait surrounded by a richly decorated border. They sometimes included sayings for commemorative purposes such as weddings and births.