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.
Pharmacy jar from Castelli, CC courtesy Metropolitan Museum, NYC
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.
Even the ceiling of Castelli’s San Donato church is covered in ceramic tiles!
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.
Plate from Castelli, CC courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
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:
Castelli in Abruzzo
Museo delle Ceramiche
64041 Castelli (TE)
Istituto d’Arte per la Ceramica “Grue”
64041 Castelli (TE)
Have you discovered Italian ceramics during your travels? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories!