In Deruta, a sacred spot of the Middle Ages holds sacred treasures. In this small Umbria hilltown, a 14th-century Franciscan monastery now houses the first ceramics museum of Italy – founded in 1898 – displaying over 6000 maiolica masterpieces spanning four centuries:
The museum’s first name, Museo artistico pei lavoranti in maiolica (Art Museum for Maiolica– workers), embodies the intention of the founder, Deruta notary Francesco Briganti, who wished the museum to be not just a place of conservation but also an exhibition model useful for the Deruta artisans.
The earliest collection was on display on the main square in the 14th-c municipal palace, il Palazzo dei Consoli:
That initial collection consisted of about 180 works, including some reproductions of ancient ceramics in watercolor by derutese Alpinolo Magnini as well as ceramic fragments found in local excavations.
As a young man, Magnini designed the paliotto (altar frontispiece) for the Church of San Francesco which was made in the late 19th-century by Deruta surgeon and fine ceramicist, Angelo Micheletti:
Micheletti would be the first director of the museum.
As countless artisan pieces in the museum result from donations and/or deposits, the Deruta museum is truly a museum of evergetismo: from the Greek and signifying “to do good deeds,” i.e., the distribution of a portion of one’s wealth to the community.
A tour of Deruta’s Museo Regionale della Ceramica affirms the words of mid-16th-century Dominican philosopher, theologian and historian Leandro Alberti: “… the terracotta vases made in Deruta are often mentioned for how well they are made and beautifully decorated. And it is believed that there are no other craftsmen in Italy that can match the work even though there have been attempts to do so…”
You may wish to start your visit in the lower level where 14th- and 15th-century ceramic kilns were unearthed in 2008 during construction of a a parking lot near Deruta’s medieval walls.
In one section of the wall, you’ll note the ceramic shards in a butto (literally, “throw away”) the area where broken pieces – or a ceramacist’s failed pieces – were discarded:
Objects like these pitchers might have been fired in such kilns:
These are among the oldest objects in the museum and made in the 14h-century, the two colors used were green (from copper) and browns (manganese).
The smallest of the kilns – slightly above the others – was for the firing of lustro…..
…..that maiolica which was lustrous due to the metallic glaze applied at final firing.
Deruta’s ceramics museum boasts a collection of exquisite pieces (most of the 16th-century):
The first Deruta lustro piece is “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” dated 1501 and conserved today in London in the Victoria and Albert Museum:
In the 16th-century elegant plates for special and celebratory occasions, such as matrimonies, called “piatti da pompa” were decorated with allegorical subjects, chivalric battle and hunting scenes, family coats-of-arms, and amorous images with intricate geometric, vegetative, floral, and peacock feather motifs enriching the decoration:
And not just exquisite plates da pompa enrich the collection. Look for the elegant mid-16th-c tray, the allegory of Prudence reigning in the center:
The section dedicated to pharmaceutical jars displays splendid pieces from the 15th to 19th centuries:
Maiolica bedwarmers on display show off astoundingly intricate work for the containers of simply coals and ash – to warm up hands and feet:
Look for the exquisite early 18th-century wash basin painted on the sides with figures in eight medallions representing the cycles of life:.
One of my favorite painters of maiolica on display is David Zipirovic, born in Odessa, Russia at the end of the 19th-century. After studying at the Beaux Arts in Paris, he won a scholarship for study in Rome, then moved to Deruta in 1922 to accept the position of director for the co-operative Maioliche Deruta. Zipirovic stayed in Deruta until 1927 (before returning to Russia) where he specialized in the reproduction of masterpieces of the greatest Renaissance artists. On plates, vases, amphoras and tiles, he reproduced some of the greatest art works of Italian painting from the 15th to 17th-centuries.
Here are some of his maiolica gems in the Museo Regionale della Ceramica, with the inspiration for each work flanking his pieces. Let’s start with Botticelli’s “Madonna del Magnifcat,” 1483 (in the Uffizi, Florence):
He also re-created Ghirlandaio’s late 15th-century portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, now in Madrid…..
….and Andrea Mantegna’s engraving “Madonna dell’Umiltà” (1480 – 1485 – in Vienna):
You can head to Berlin to see the Raphael masterpiece, La Madonna di Terranova (1504) …or simply enjoy Zipirovic’s plate if you’re in Italy:
The painter also often reproduced details of major works such as this portrait of St. Joseph from Raphaels, “Marriage of the Virgin” in the Brera of Milan…
…and this detail of an anguished mother in Michelangelo’s Diluvio Universale (“Great Flood”) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508- 1510):
Zipirovic also painted Michelangelo’s “Tondo Doni” (1504-1506- Florence,Uffizi):
Zipirovic painted minor masters, too, such as Giannicola di Paolo, who trained under Perugino in the 15th-century and painted the very venerated Madonna delle Grazie enthroned in a glass case in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Perugia:Many times, Zipirovic used a Renaissance masterpiece, like Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca (1504- Florence, Galleria Palatina), and added an inscription or dedication around the central figure:
Although this blog note has centered on the re-creation in maiolica of Renaissance masterpieces in Deruta’s splendid museum, do realize that the collection is continuously growing and a variety of exhibitions will continue to showcase maiolica masterpieces – and not just of the past.
In November, 2000 red stiletto heels throughout the museum – and accompanying lectures – spoke out against violence towards women, for November 25th in Italy is the Giornata internazionale per l’eliminazione della violenza contro le donne (International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women”).
I guess I should have realized by now that even the smallest of Italian hill towns can hide grandiose treasures.
Read about fresco wonders in a small Deruta countryside chapel
Read about Deruta as a “hymn to maiolica”
Read about the maiolica folk art splendors just outside of Deruta
Click here to read about – and see – maiolica splendors in a Deruta church
Read about the mayor’s welcome to visitors in the citta’ della ceramica
Click here to read about – and see!- the creation of maiolica in a famed Deruta workshop