What’s absolutely essential to the production of bellissima glazed earthenware, maiolica? Passione. I very recently spoke to five young women in “la citta’ della ceramica,” Deruta – each one carefully masked – as they worked with painstaking care on the painting of objects in preparation for the second firing in the kiln.
They were happy to answer my questions as they worked, pleased to be photographed. When I asked each the motivation for taking on that profession, “passione” entered in some way into each answer – often given with a smile, evident in the eyes.
Massimo – at the potter’s wheel forming the clay objects to be fired – told me that he’s been creating maiolica objects for nearly 50 years, since he was 16 years old, “per la mia passione“:
In pre-history, clay was mixed with water and then exposed to the sun for drying to create receptacles for foods and above all, for the tranportation of water. The development of the kiln and firing led to the development of cooked earth, called “terracotta” – and more resistant objects, although porous. Some historians feel that in the 14th century with the outbreaks of the plague, porous earthenware pottery was considered not hygienic and difficult to keep clean.
In any case, for centuries, attempts had been made to render terracotta impermeable with use of an alkaline/clay-like coating. The ancient Egyptians were the first to successfully develop invetriatura (glazing) and their technique spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
As of the 10th-11th centuries, metallic lustreware was produced in Islamic countries and by the 12th and 13th centuries, the Islamic ceramics were very popular with the most elevated social classes in Italy.
The Islamic ceramics were often stored in warehouses and then shipped out from Majorca, a commercial trade center; hence the name “maiolica.” Italy soon developed its own production and the clay soil of Deruta on the Tiber River would make it a prime center. A Deruta potters’ guild is documented as of 1336 (though production dates long before).
Throughout the Middle Ages, the pottery objects were for domestic use and designs were plain and simple: mostly just vegetative motifs and geometric designs copied from Islamic ware. The Deruta medieval potters’ palette was restricted to greens (copper) and brown tones (manganese). Blue, orange and red would arrive later – and in the 16th century in Deruta, maiolica reaches maximum splendor.
By the 15th-century, the guild of the vasai (potters) was so important that four of the priori of Deruta were chosen as city council members, whereas each of the other guilds were represented by just one priore. Production of Renaissance piatti di pompa (dishes for “show” or “display” – and for important ceremonial events such as marriage) reaches full splendor in Deruta in the early 16th-century.
Fine Deruta artisans paint such piatti da pompa even today:
Many were on display in the maiolica workshop I recently visited…
In the back room where maiolica creation took place, I stopped to watch Massimo skillfully forming the objects on the potters’ wheel, almost lovingly and protectively holding that clay mass as the wheel spun….
…and he quickly formed the rising shape, holding it with two fingers for the judging of the thickness…
…and deftly formed the top border of the vase..
…and measured the width after the vase was formed, for the vases were an order of fifty for a single client, to be used as wedding favors, bonbonnieri:
The clay objects would dry for a couple days or so (longer in the winter, less in the summer) on a set of mobile shelves – and then wheeled into the kiln for the first firing at 1020° C.
The terracotta (literally “cooked earth”) objects would then await on shelves the next step:
Young Danilo would dip each terracotta object into a mineral glaze…
…preparing them for the second firing – this time at 920 C. The total amount of time spent in the kiln at each firing is 26 hours, i.e., the time required to bring to the correct temperature, bake the ceramics and then let the kiln cool down.
After that first firing, the objects will be painted.
The painting is generally on designs pounced on the objects. I remember some years ago watching Raffaele, one of the finest of Deruta’s maiolica artists – now retired – at work. At the time, he was working on a plate, already stenciled with his design by pouncing. He placed his painting hand on a long piece of wood to steady it:
Each of the young women that I met while observing them paint used a different technique for the steadying of the painting hand. Francesca rested her working hand holding the brush on her other hand:
Age 22, she told me, “I started this work at age seventeen and this will always be my passion. there is nothing in the world I would rather do.”
Michela, age 20, agreed, adding that she’d always painted: ceramics, acrylics and her own artworks. “This isn’t work: it’s the passion of my life and my life force.” Like Raffaele, she too, steadied her hand on a board as she worked:
Another Michela, age 32, and a painter of maiolica since she was 14, steadies her hand on a sort of wooden rod:
She told me, “I’ve dedicated my life to what I do here. I can’t imagine doing anything else, nor holding anything but my paintbrush.”
Black-haired Eleonora, age 25, has been a maiolica artisan in this workshop for nine years, and “can’t imagine any other life.” For her, too, her work is passione.
Like Francesca, Eleonora, uses her free hand to steady the painting hand:
Dressed in perky bright red, Letizia, age 26, has finally found the work she loves – and just over two years ago, “grazie a Dio,” she added. She’s most grateful that she was able to give up her hotel work for maiolica.
Like “the older Michela,” Letizia, too, often steadies her painting hand with a wooden rod:
After the objects are painted, they’ll return to the kiln for a second firing – this time, at 920° C.:
A crystalline glaze will be sprayed on each object before this final firing: that glaze is both an additional protection and adds luminosity.
When purchasing Deruta maiolica – whether a Deruta trip memento such as a Deruta plaque with the town’s striding griffin on a red backround……or a plate depicting the town…
….or perhaps simple coffee cups, plates, place settings, decorative urns or even table tops – look for that luminosity:
And remember the passione of the creators.
Read about the maiolica folk art splendors just outside of Deruta
Click here to read about – and see – maiolica splendors in a Deruta church