Words and Images by Christine Webb

Ceramica is the Italian word most commonly used to describe pottery. Objects that have been made by firing clay have been created on the Italian peninsula for thousands of years and many archaeological museums have splendid examples of ancient pottery and sculpture. From the earliest Etruscan ceramics through to the 12th century, all over the peninsula exquisite workmanship can be found in votive pieces and celebratory bowls and vases.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, with increased trade came the import of Arab techniques from Spain, through the island of Majorca, hence the name maiolica, and glazes from the middle east that gradually introduced the colours that we know today.

First green and dark brown, then yellow, orange and blue were developed in the 1400s and a more delicate brushwork enabled artists to create intricate designs while preserving the colours of their work. Styles reflected the contemporary art of the day and gradually signature patterns such as Rafaellesco (a dragon motif with yellow edging), Arabesco (a leaf pattern often with a bird motif), and Grottesco, were handed down from generation to generation.

Utilitarian and decorative, the distinctive majolica designs have slowly evolved over centuries, so that today you have a giddying selection to choose from. In some shops there is so much visual onslaught from pieces crowded together that it is hard find the style you are after, let alone verify the workmanship.

Mark of Approval

Today, the Italian Association of Ceramic Cities has formed a mark of excellence: Ceramica Artistica Tradizionale, an organisation to support traditions, the growth of the industry and provide finance for museums, exhibitions and schools. 33 towns from 16 regions have joined the association and the website (in English) makes an excellent place to find the nearest town or certified pottery to where you are visiting.

  • Maiolica is twice fired. The first dried clay form is fired in kilns at 1050 °C, the result is a highly porous bisque ware also called terracotta (cooked earth). The bisque ware is then dipped in a mineral oxide bath (white, beige or yellow) which provides the base for the hand painting.

  • The design is transferred by the ancient method of pin-pricking the outlines on paper and dusting through the holes a black carbon powder which burns out in the subsequent firing.

  • Artists skilfully use pale oxides to replicate the original designs. Brushes of hog hair are trimmed leaving a finger of fine hairs for delicate line work, while a thick part holds a well of colour.

  • The porous surface is difficult to paint on, so painters use a stick and ball to rest their hand to avoid the easily damaged underglaze. Metal oxide glazes themselves require an expert eye. Pale blackberry will result in brilliant red, flesh tone becomes succulent orange and cream results in vivacious yellow.

  • Some workshops dip the wares in a final clear glaze to strengthen and add even more shine to the final product.

  • Depending on the types of glazes used, the work is then refiredat 600 °C or 900° to 970°. Quality control at the most respectable studios may resubmit more than 30% of works for a third firing.

Clues to quality

What you should look for in the pieces you choose is that the item is well thrown with refined clay. Ceramics are thrown by hand so you should see even thickness, not too heavy in the base and well finished at the top with handles that are ‘pulled’ by hand. The exceptions are plates which must match exactly in size and unusual traditional shapes such as cockerel jugs or twisted candle stick holders which are slip cast.

The brushwork should have a steady hand and flow with lightness and agility and, of course, the finer the line and more delicate the design, the more you will pay. Utilitarian kitchen jugs called Arte Povera can be bought for as little as 210, while major works that take a single artist months to complete can cost thousands but at least you will know that you are buying a piece of history.

Beware of any work that does not have the signature of the town of production and preferably also the pottery at its base. Genuine Italian maiolica stands out for its quality.

To read the second part of this guide click here.