With a handful of clay and a few flames, man has crafted beautiful ceramic works as long ago as time has been recorded. It is safe to say that most of these artists – finely skilled artisans of their trade – were Italian.
As we all know, Italy has been an unparalleled center of art and culture since people first settled on the beautiful peninsula. In numerous tiny villages, dotted among the nation’s beaches, mountains, hills and plains, we find the history of the art of ceramics. It is in these hamlets that clay becomes a vase or urn, plates or dinnerware, decorative pots, mirror frames, tiles and so much more.
Italian ceramics expert Giuseppe Liverani defines the word “ceramic” as “the earth on which human workmanship and the consolidating action of fire intervene, to transform it into objects with a practical and ornamental purpose.”
The process of ceramic creation begins in the Italian hills, where clay collects over the centuries and is harvested from deep in the soil. The clay is then molded into the desired shape, either on a potter’s wheel or with a variety of tools that are used to shape, smooth, cut and finish the raw material according to the artist’s vision. The clay object then undergoes a heating process. In antiquity, this was performed over an open flame, while today the artist uses a kiln. This permanently hardens the object. What follows this stage of the process is what sets aside ceramics from standard pottery – the painting.
Italian ceramics of modern times are known for their unique, intricate and exquisite hand painted designs, painstakingly created by the few remaining ceramic artisans in Italian villages and towns. The paints used in ceramics are actually enamels and glazes, which create a glassy finish when the piece is re-fired in the kiln. Thus, the final ceramic product is characterized by a lustrous, polished appearance.
One of the earliest records of painted fine art ceramics is found in the 15th century, when most pieces were decorated with patterns and repeated motifs that resembled the intricacies of lace. Later designs were developed to include illustrations of fruits and birds, such as roosters and peacocks; female goddess figures and Italian landscape scenes. Tin was used in the base decoration to create a white surface upon which glazing was applied. This special type of ceramic came to be known as maiolica. Five centuries later, we still use the term to describe this precious ceramic decoration method.
Caltagirone is one of the eight towns of south-eastern Sicily known as the “Baroque towns of the Val di Noto,” which were almost entirely destroyed and rebuilt after the earthquake of 1693. But the town’s history of pottery manufacture goes back two millennium earlier than that. In the ninth century, glazing was added and fine ceramics have been produced in Caltagirone ever since! The ceramic tradition is visible in every part of the town, not only in its numerous shops selling ceramics, but throughout the city’s architecture, with the most famous landmark being the magnificent stairs, Santa Maria del Monte in the center of town. The stairs consist of 142 steps, covered with colorful ceramics, each step different from the next.
At the center of ceramic production is the tiny town of Deruta in the heart of Umbria, known as “The Cradle of Italian Ceramic Art.” Widely respected for the preservation of ancient ceramic traditions, pieces created in Deruta are found in elite museums, impressive private collections and on expensive auction blocks around the world. Each year, visitors flock to Deruta’s factories and artisan workshops by the thousands. If you have the opportunity to visit, make sure to stop into the town’s Regional Ceramics Museum for a quick art history lesson.
Much further south, located on the Amalfi Coast is the village of Vietri sul Mare. It lies at the foot of San Liberatore Mountain, a veritable treasure trove of clay. Beneath the village lies a wealth of ancient artifacts, including an abundance of Corinthian and Roman pottery. Also home to an incredible ceramics museum, Vietri is also one of Italy’s major centers of ceramics. Faenza in Emilia Romagna, the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, the Amalfi Coast’s Positano and the entire region of Calabria also boast beautiful works of this authentic Italian art form.
Faenza, located on the banks of the Lamone River, is situated on fertile soil that contains clay deposits from the river, the basis for ceramic art production in the city. The center of town is dotted with over 60 ceramic factories and workshops, each of which produce, sell and export their own unique handmade ceramic pieces.
Known for the residents’ dedication to the continuation of this ancient trade, Faenza also offers apprenticeships in the creation of ceramic art, as well as official schools of the trade. The International Museum of Ceramics is located there and includes numerous works of historic and important pottery and ceramics, as well as stunning works of the Renaissance and pieces from every corner of the world.
The evidence of Positano’s role in Italian ceramic production is observed almost immediately upon arrival in the picturesque coastal village – the maiolica tile on the dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta dominates the horizon from every angle. A vibrant center of many art forms, Positano is known for its tiny ceramic shops located around every corner, offering works designed in their own signature blends of charm and color. If you are planning to visit such a boutique, be sure to stop at Umberto Carro on Via Pasita (for kitchenware and intricately detailed ceramic tiles) and Ceramica Assunta on Via Cristoforo Colombo, known for its bright colors and fine patterns.
In the heart of San Gimignano, Tuscany’s famous “City of Towers,” is the famous Leoncini Ceramics shop and showroom. For generations, the Leoncini family has produced world famous ceramics in a tradition begun in the 16th century, when the Spezieria di Santa Fina chemist shop opened, offering ointments and medicines in terracotta pharmacy pots. As the years went on, the pots were more elaborately decorated and became collectors’ items and the Leoncini family followed suit by beginning their own ceramic workshop. Today, Leoncini tableware and decorative pieces are among the highest quality ceramic work in the world, used to furnish the homes of the international elite.
The people of Calabria are known for an innate passion for handmade crafts, including silk work, weaving, bronze sculptures and ceramics. Tiles from Gerace are among the region’s most famous pieces – a traditional variety of which are called pinakes in the ancient custom of votive offerings to Roman gods and goddesses. Calabrian ceramics are also known for their frequent use of symbolic religious images, as well as for the blue and orange-yellow decorative hues that come from the minerals mined near the town of Seminara. Some of Italy’s best ceramic markets are offered in Calabria throughout the year. We suggest visits to the village markets at Largo Cimalonga in Cosenza, held on the second Sunday of each month and at Crotone’s Piazza Duomo, scheduled for the first weekend of each month.