Charger from Deruta in the LA County Museum

Exquisitely painted some five centuries ago, a small brown stag appears to leap from the clay fragment I hold in my hand. Gingerly, I return it to its owner, the master of one of Deruta’s most historic ceramics workshops. He places the delicate shard inside a glass cabinet at the back of his shop, a vitrine filled with hundreds of vestiges depicting rabbits, cupids, nobles in profile, swags, and swirls. This curio cabinet is not a museum, the master emphasizes with a pointed finger, but the very lifeblood of his workshop. The past is a constant muse for his shop assistants, who work with a fragment at their table to ensure that the spirit of tradition is infused into each piece they produce.

The Spirit of the Past

The past—especially the Renaissance—lives in Umbria, in its brightly colored maiolica ceramic wares, considered synonymous with Mediterranean style. Maiolica is another name for tin-glazed earthenware, made by bathing clay vessels in a glaze that incorporates tin oxides. The technique imparts a bright, opaque white surface that serves as a blank canvas for painted decoration. (Maiolica is often called majolica in English-speaking countries; the latter term also describes a particular class of ceramics produced mainly in England in the 1800s.) The hallmark of maiolica is brightly hued pigments like blue, green, and ocher—a distinctive mix of yellow and orange—painted against this creamy white background.

The ceramics capital of Gubbio (courtesy Benessere Umbria, CC via Flickr)

The ceramics capital of Gubbio (courtesy Benessere Umbria, CC via Flickr)

Although maiolica is produced across the Mediterranean, what’s characteristic about Umbrian maiolica is its allegiance to styles of the Renaissance, when the tradition was at its height. In the 15th and 16th centuries, European nobles coveted ceramic gifts commemorating engagements, marriages, and political alliances. Prosperous merchants and noble families, especially in the Tuscan towns of Florence and Siena, fueled demand for maiolica and kept artisans across central Italy busy for several centuries. Umbrian merchants established export routes for their ceramic wares, which were prized across Europe for their intrinsic beauty, craftsmanship, and especially, as markers of social status. A litany of vessel types developed, from simple table services to footed coppe amatorie (“friendship cups”) to brocconi (large pitchers), and specialized wares such as wedding plates that were reserved for display only, or da pompa. Pharmacies commissioned vast quantities of jars called albarelli with the medicinal contents written in elaborate script on the outside of the vessel.

How to Shop for Umbrian Maiolica

To locate the best value in authentic Umbrian ceramics, avoid the temptation to buy in heavily touristed cities like Florence, where you’re sure to pay more. Instead, venture to one of the picturesque hill towns of central Umbria and connect with the artisans themselves. With some 125 active producers of maiolica today, Deruta remains the undisputed capital of Umbrian ceramics, but other nearby towns boast important ceramic traditions, including Gualdo Tadino, Gubbio, and Orvieto. In some workshops, you can observe maiolica made in traditional ways. These wares begin with raw clay pulled from the ruddy hillsides and prepared for throwing on the potter’s wheel or hand-building. Once formed, the vessels are fired, then tin-glazed. After colors are applied, usually with a fine paintbrush, the wares are fired a second time. Sometimes kilns were cavernous rooms, often underground, but today virtually all the makers use modern electric versions.

Although reproductions of Renaissance wares count among the most authentic souvenirs you can purchase, several additional distinctive traditions make for genuine Umbrian finds. Stunning vessels called buccheri are all-black wares achieved by evacuating oxygen from the kiln, a special technique that the ancient Etruscans discovered—probably by accident—in the seventh century B.C. Those with more ornate taste will appreciate maiolica made in Gualdo Tadino, with gilding and frilly edges, made popular in the 19th century. In Gubbio, wares fashioned after the famous historiated or “storytelling” pieces crafted in the 1500s by Master Giorgio Andreoli make an authentic souvenir.

How to Spot Quality Wares

The largest differentiator of quality in Umbrian ceramics lies in the execution of the painted decoration. Unfortunately, many pieces are dashed off for the tourist trade, and you must look carefully and compare details like swirls, fruit, and swags to make sure you’re buying a quality piece. If you need help to train your eye toward richer, more quality painting, spend some time examining historical wares in one of the excellent regional museums, like the Museo Regionale della Ceramica in Deruta. A handful of artisans with a deep respect for the tradition produce wares with an insistence on these local materials, colors, shapes, decorative patterns, and fine painting.

Quality pieces of Umbrian ceramics do not come cheap, but you will still spend less in the hill towns of Umbria than if you buy a piece of similar quality in the U.S. Shipping can be costly, though many producers are set up to ship their wares abroad safely. You can even commission an artisan to craft a personalized table service for you, a great idea for newlyweds or anyone who wants a truly unique Umbrian souvenir made to order.

This piece originally appeared in Laura Morelli’s column, “The Genuine Article,” for National Geographic Traveler Online. Click here for more…

Have you discovered Italian ceramics during your travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!

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