When most people think of Italian ceramics, they think of maiolica: the rich, colorfully decorated earthenware that flourished across the Mediterranean in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Today, master potters in the Umbrian towns of Deruta, Gualdo Tadino, and Gubbio carry on this nearly 700-year-old Italian tradition.
Italian maiolica traces its roots to the mid-fourteenth century, when Spanish merchants unloaded large numbers of colorfully painted wares from their ships in Italian port cities. Italians immediately appreciated the aesthetic qualities of these Spanish imports, with their shiny white background and bright decoration, and they began to innovate in creating maiolica themselves. Soon, ceramics workshops across central Italy began turning out colorful maiolica in vast quantities. Central Italian wares were exported as far as London and Constantinople; merchants and nobles in city-states like Florence and Siena kept the central Italian ceramics towns in business.
Ceramic artisans were charged with creating commemorative vessels and table services to mark engagements, marriages, political alliances, business deals, friendship, and more. Stylistically, the spirit of the Italian Renaissance breathed life into the scrolls, cupids, and idealized nudes that populate jars plates, and other wares. By 1500, an entire typology of ceramic wares had developed in the region. Certain vessels were destined for the table, while others were referred to as da pompa, or “for display.”
How Maiolica is Made
Making maiolica involves layering colored pigments on top of a white glaze achieved by dipping vessels into a watery bath of tin oxide, then firing them in a kiln. This technique imparts brightly colored, shiny colors that pop from a creamy, opaque background. It’s this bold contrast of color against the white, along with characteristic decorative motifs, that first propelled this type of ceramic ware to fame and keeps it popular even by today’s standards of taste.
Italian ceramics workshops originally operated according to a rigorous guild hierarchy, with specific jobs for masters, journeymen, and apprentices. Younger assistants were tasked with preparing materials, including the clay, oxides, and pigments, as well as with cleanup. More experienced or specialized apprentices focused on throwing pots on the wheel. Others with painterly talents were tasked with the decoration of vessels. Painters laid colored pigments obtained from copper, manganese, iron, antimony, and cobalt on the white ground to form designs and scenes. The art of decorating a vessel required patience, experience, and above all, a sure hand. There was no going back to correct mistakes, as the pigments immediately bonded with the glaze and were impossible to remove once applied. A second firing in the kiln fused the colors and glaze to the vessel. On days when the kiln was fired, workers suspended their regular work to tend it. In this way they collaborated to ensure a successful firing of the many pieces—perhaps representing weeks of the workshop’s production—stacked inside room-sized ovens.
The ceramics capital of Gubbio (courtesy Benessere Umbria, CC via Flickr)
Today, most ceramicists in Umbria source their clay from art supply businesses and use electric kilns to fire their work. In spite of these modern conveniences, the rest of the process of producing maiolica remains more or less the same as it was in centuries past. In workshops across the region, you can still watch these masters of maiolica preparing vessels and painting them while drawing inspiration from historic examples.
The hilltowns of Deruta, Gubbio, and Gualdo Tadino form a “holy trinity” of Umbrian ceramics capitals, and they are wonderful places to experience this historic art. Deruta is the most well known and boasts the largest number of operating workshops, but Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino offer quieter, more intimate experiences. A visit to these historic ceramics workshops captures the spirit of the thriving craft guilds that once formed the economic and social backbone of central Italy.