For people like me with a passion for traditional cultures, Abruzzo is one of Italy’s most interesting regions. Its rural communities—cut off from the rest of the Italian peninsula by formidable mountains—remain a secret for many international visitors. Travelers intrepid enough to veer off the beaten path are rewarded with a rich tapestry of traditional Italian crafts, including one of the country’s most distinguished ceramics traditions.
A Grand Tradition
Castelli is considered one of Italy’s grand ceramic traditions, and examples of these colorful wares are prized in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Louvre in Paris, and other international museums.
It all began during the Middle Ages, when the Benedictine monks of San Salvatore of Castelli in Abruzzo began teaching locals how to pull clay from the mountains, and turn it into decorated pottery. By the 1500s, Castelli was producing a large volume of maiolica, ceramics bathed in a tin-based, opaque white glaze and then painted with bright colors. Some of these early ceramic artisans used the whole town as their canvas. The ceiling of the church of San Donato in Castelli is paved with ceramic bricks from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ceramic altarpieces, fonts, and street-side ex votos display saints and Madonnas painted by artisans of Castelli’s most important ceramic dynasties: the Pompei, Grue, Gentili, Cappelletti, de Martinis, and Fuina.
In the 1500s, Castelli’s artisans were commissioned to create a set of maiolica vessels to celebrate peace between the Orisini and Colonna families. These wares—bulbous vases and jars with handles, and busts of noblemen and women—inspired many imitators. Their bell-shaped vases, pot-bellied jugs, and flasks with large handles stood alongside those of other Italian ceramics centers like Deruta and Faenza. The ceramics of Castelli began to be widely exported outside of the Italian peninsula as luxury items.
Some time in the 1600s, Castelli departed from the traditional patterns and styles that made other ceramics towns famous, and the town made a name for itself with “historiated,” or story-telling ceramics decorated with popular scenes from religion and mythology. Watercolor-like landscapes that treated the white glaze like a blank canvas also delighted the noble classes who consumed these pieces. Today, several dozen artisan enterprises in Castelli continue the centuries-old tradition of making these colorful wares.
A Living Tradition
Today, many of Castelli’s some fifty ceramic enterprises snake along the Via Scesa del Borgo and cluster around the artisan district known as the Villaggio Artigiano. Electric potters’ wheels and gas-fired kilns have replaced the manual tasks that were central to Castelli’s ceramic techniques for centuries, but the best artisans still capture the historical styles and spirit that characterize this grand tradition. The Ceramics Museum is a great place to start your visit, and if you want to learn how to make Castelli ceramics yourself, check out the school dedicated to the town’s craft:
Museo delle Ceramiche
64041 Castelli (TE)
Istituto d’Arte per la Ceramica “Grue”
64041 Castelli (TE)
Hello Laura Morelli
I have a tile that is a horse with rider that is marked G. CASTELLINI FAENZA I would like to send you a photo of it so you can tell me something about it. Thanks for your assistance in this matter
Thanks for emailing me your photos! There was a Castellini ceramics family active in Faenza for more than a century. Goffredo Castellini was active through the 1970s, though I don’t know if your “G” is Goffredo or not.
Your tile reproduces an image that’s a detail from a 14th-century fresco, painted by Simone Martini, in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The man on horseback is Guidoriccio da Fogliano.
You can read more about Faenza ceramics on my blog here: https://lauramorelli.com/ceramics-faenza/.
I hope this helps to get you started on further research. Good luck!
Buonasera, dove posso vedere esemplari medievali di oggetti prodotti dai monaci benedettini di San Salvatore di Castelli in Abruzzo quando come lei afferma iniziarono ad insegnare ai locali come estrarre l’argilla dalle montagne e trasformarla in ceramica decorata?
Ciao Troiano, Ha visitato il museo a Castelli? Museo delle ceramiche di Castelli, Località Villaggio Artigiano SNC, 64041 Castelli. Hanno alcuni esempi di pezzi medievali. Grazie della sua domanda! –Laura
Wondering if you can help me I have a plaque from Fuina da Castelli …. it reads. “ Fortuna assistami Invidia crepa”. I’m trying to learn value and history. Can you help me?.
Thanks so much. Would love to see a picture! The saying “Good fortune, help me. Envy, drop dead” is something you see occasionally as a good luck charm. The Fuina were a family of ceramicists active in Castelli through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Without examining the object in person, it’s hard to say much about the value and age. If you think you might have something valuable, I would recommend having the piece examined by a certified art appraiser. Good luck and let me know what happens! 🙂 Laura
Hello, Laura, I just returned from a trip to Italy and visited the commune of Castelli. My maiden name is Castelli so this was one of the reasons I visited there. My family is actually from Atripalda and Naples. We took a train and 2 buses to Castelli only to find the ceramic museum was closed for repairs and the shops were also closed. One shop owned by Franco DiSimone just closed but the owner kindly re-opened so we could buy some ceramic pieces. We were delighted and so was the owner who shared stories of his craft and proudly showed us his beautiful pieces. My niece and nephew who I traveled with were equally delighted that we were able to see these beautiful ceramics.
Hi Maria, thanks for sharing your experience! Ah, the serendipitous nature of traveling and shopping in Italy! Sometimes closed doors open other, unexpected and marvelous finds! I hope you came home with something beautiful. –Laura
Hello, can you assist with identifying a makers mark that says MADE YTALY?
It is on a small hand painted pitcher; I’m not having much luck finding any references to Made Ytaly as the internet only finds ‘Italy’.
Hi Nancy, I suspect your “Y” is actually “IN I.” 🙂