Umbrian is one of few regions in Italy which can boast of four towns with the ancient tradition of ceramics: Deruta, Gualdo Tadino, Gubbio and Orvieto. The entire region of Umbria does, however, see the production of excellent terracotta ware. The majolica industry of towns such as Città di Castello and Umbertide is evidence of the economic/productive evolution of ceramics in Umbria. Of all the traditional crafts, the production of terracotta and majolica is the one for which Umbria is most well-known globally and which has reached the highest levels of technical and artistic expression. Umbria’s rich clay soil, abundant water and forests with ideal wood with which to stoke the kilns, has ensured a remarkable development of the art of majolica in Umbria over the centuries. In fact, communities have settled in the territory which lies between the upper and middle Tiber and its tributaries, the Chiascio and the Paglia, since ancient times. Their terracotta objects, made with the sedimentary clay from these areas, document and bear witness to the evolution of the craft as far back as the Umbrians and the Etruscans. The latter in particular developed a refined and varied productive and artistic ability to cover and decorate the places of worship. They also produced votive furnishings and fittings for everyday use, which was the foundation of an uninterrupted centuries-old tradition. The production of terracotta, however, is documented from the 13th century onwards and the use of this material from ancient times is proof of a true vocation of the Umbrian people for this process. Further evidence is provided by the kilns which were very widespread from the very beginning of the twentieth century and which are partly active today. Production ranged from simple, glazed terracotta for embellishing kneading troughs and tables, to the more refined, decorated majolica. Despite the deep-rooted and widespread tradition of the production of terracotta, the transformations caused by the arrival of the industrial period, together with the globalisation of productions, have sanctioned the disappearance of many workshops in Umbria. What is certain is that the base for a culture of craftwork was set for this type of production which in turn has supported the greater expressions of ceramics. Examples include the lustrous bucchero ware, the Renaissance “grotesques,” the magical reflections of lustre ware, the innovative shapes of modern ceramics and the production of ceramics and bricks for architectural uses. This vast range of products speaks of Umbria to the world. With a strong link to the fascinating country homes, the historic town centre buildings and farmhouses, they often become storage containers for other extraordinary Umbrian products, such as olive oil and wine or typical, genuine, tasty, regional foods which liven up a social gathering from the “Etruscan banquet” to the current “contemporary banquet.” The history of Umbria is, therefore, above all the history of its relationship with this art, this interweaving of lives, of individual and collective destinies with traditions and customs, of social relationships determined by an economic activity, which often overlap with a pure search for beauty for beauty’s sake. On the one hand, ceramics is a historic event which demands a systematic, scientific reconstruction and passionate cultural impulse; on the other it is an artistic event, which crosses the chronological limits of historic events to be admired as an object worthy of representing the territory and its people.
A historic outline of ceramics
The traditions of ceramics are those which have lasted longest over time. There are many variations in the different stages of the ceramic process and once the potters found a way to personalise them, they repeated the shapes and colours, handing down their secrets from generation to generation. It is often thought that the first piece of terracotta came about by chance. Primitive men wove the plants they had available to make the baskets used to transport water. They then used clay to seal them because clay in its plastic state is impermeable. One of these containers must have been involved in a fire. The part made of foliage burnt, leaving the clay in its original shape with the impression of the weave.
Ceramic products can be classed as artefacts consisting of inorganic material, with non-metallic properties which, during certain stages of the production cycle, are fired at high temperatures.
The word “ceramic” comes from the Greek work Keramos, which means “clay” or “terracotta.” The Greek term is, however, closely linked to the Sanskrit root, which meant “to burn” (used originally to mean “burnt things”).
The hypothesis is that it was invented only twice in the history of mankind, by people in the Sahara desert and in Japan. It spread from these original places throughout the world. The first pieces found in Japan date back to the 11th millennium B.C. in the Neolithic Age and consist of clay pots heated directly over the fire. The art subsequently saw the introduction of the potter’s wheel, which enabled graceful, perfectly symmetrical objects to be obtained. Painted ceramics were exported from Anatolia and from Syrian territories towards Europe around the 3rd millennium B.C.
The introduction of glazing, used in Mesopotamia from the 2nd millennium B.C, further improved wear and tear and the aesthetic features. A real revolution took place after the discovery of the making of porcelain.
Ancient Greece inherited the techniques of ceramics from the Minoan-Mycenaean civilisation. From the 6th to 5th century B.C., Athens dominated the markets with its production of vases, but when it declined in the 4th century B.C., important local productions arose, such as those in Etruria and in Sicily, where conditions were particularly favourable. During the Roman Empire, ceramics with a raised decoration, the so-called “terra sigillata,” became popular and remained in use until the end of the empire. In about the year 1000 in Europe, and especially in southern Spain, they began to produce majolica imitating the productions and techniques of ceramic objects coming from Eastern countries.
In the late Middle Ages, ceramics were made with potters’ wheels, fired in the kiln and made waterproof with a glaze. After the 13th century, new, different, decorative shapes were designed not only for polychrome ware, but also to depict the so-called stories or tales using more sophisticated decorations. At this time, the major production centres developed in central Italy, with the Umbrian towns standing out among them.
The first settlements in Deruta to produce ceramics were favoured by how easy it was to find clay on its hills. This continued to be extracted from the hills and surrounding areas, including the alluvial deposits of the Tiber River, up to the early decades of the 19th century. A place named the terra vasaria (“pottery earth”) was documented back in 1296 on the banks of the Tiber in the nearby Torgiano area. Deruta was in a favourable geographical position, especially as it was close to major road and river traffic, which favoured commerce and exchange, and was able to support the development of the potters’ business and the expansion of their trade. Fictile finds from the Roman era prove that the ceramics of Deruta were already popular in this period. However, although proof regarding its more ancient origins is scarce, a considerable amount of evidence, including documents from the archives, archaeological finds and surviving works housed in museums or in private collections, shows how ceramics were continuously produced in Deruta from the Middle Ages until today. A picture emerges of Deruta as a mono-economy, based on the production of ceramics, especially between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and again in the nineteenth century.
In 1277,during the Middle Ages, they were already speaking of the terracotta from Deruta in a public auction, where they required a supply of bricks to be made “ad modum mattorum Dirupta,” in other words according to the measurements and quality of Deruta. From here onwards, the productive and commercial scene of the potters and ceramic makers from Deruta was no longer restricted to a strictly local market, so its organisation and production must both have been at an advanced stage at the time. In 1336, the notarial archives spoke of cooperative organisations producing everyday objects, such as basins, bowls, dishes, jugs and plates, painted in the customary colours of brown and copper green over an opaque white glaze. These productions, similar to those of other towns along the Umbrian and Marche Apennines, belong to the so-called “Maiolica Archaica,” a term which distinguishes a type of ceramics covered with a tin glaze, on which they traced patterns in copper green and manganese brown. This type of pottery was made on the wheel without further refinishing and in Deruta they sparingly added a fine glaze tending towards grey on the parts to be decorated. The decorations appeared with geometric, geometric and floral patterns, and sometimes with animals and anthropomorphic designs or sacred symbols. In the 15th century, these rigid shapes and styles gave way to a rich variety of shapes and iconography with the acquisition of new colours. Orange, yellow and blue were added to the restricted palette of green and brown. The shapes made on the wheel gradually transformed and lost their practical use to become decorative, as in the case of the ceremonial platters. New ornamental patterns were introduced and organised according to a formal layout, to which the painters of Deruta remained faithful. The decorations were distributed between a central medallion and a series of concentric, parallel bands around it. From the second half of the fifteenth century, two phenomena affected Deruta. The first was a great immigration of potters after the plague of 1456. The second was the closer relationship of the potters with the major representatives of Umbrian painting, which was to generate a lively and unprecedented, artistic and commercial scenario. The Deruta production of the period was particularly varied in both its quality and its technique. They catered to both rich and poor markets, so that alongside the extremely refined, sophisticated lustre ware, there was also a flourishing, glazed terracotta artwork. It has also been demonstrated that the same kilns were used for producing brick, terracotta and painted vases. New shapes and decorations replaced the old, new techniques, such as the lustre were learnt, and new protagonists were added to the original nucleus to give birth to a vigorous, unparalleled, artistic and commercial scenario. In the final decades of the 15th century, a type of production appeared amongst the best works, which was the first example of the transition towards the style of the sixteenth century. This type included simple decorations in the form of petals on the back of platters and small plates and became known as “Petal Back.” The front portrayed equally progressive patterns in an “austere style,” as well as decorations similar to work dating certainly to the sixteenth century. However, between the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, lustre ware dominated ceramic production. The use of lustre was restricted to those works of special merit and their price was, therefore, considerably higher than the corresponding polychrome production. However, mastery of this particular technique and perhaps the strong demand for these products encouraged its application on works of lesser importance. As we can see in the large “ceremonial” plates, the contemporary production of polychrome continued to be characterised by the rigid division of the pictorial field with central areas to portray allegorical or heraldic scenes or sacred topics, surrounded by decorative, geometrically arranged sections. Even in the vertical shapes of the albarelli (drug jars), vases and jugs, the painter organised the space to give a central scene, framed by recurring decorative patterns, such as garlands, ribbons and scrolls. This same period saw the production of plaques depicting a sacred subject which remained unchanged for a long time in the Deruta factories. More generally speaking, the iconographic repertory included a variety of decorative patterns, which were sometimes arranged in sections on the wide border around the plate to form a frame. The most frequent decorations appear to be crowns of thorns, hatched triangles, garlands, and “alla porcellana,” or in the manner of Chinese porcelain. Great important subjects included portraits and allegorical, mythological and sacred scenes, often taken from prints of the period or inspired by examples of Umbrian painting of the time, especially by Pinturicchio. An exception to this rigid, figurative division was the istoriato style of decoration towards the middle of the sixteenth century. Examples with decorations extending in a geometrical progression over the entire surface of the objects can be seen on some plates decorated in “white on white” or with an arabesque pattern of foliage.
The shapes also become more decorative and ornamental, transforming the functional qualities of the objects themselves. Among the most common are: the ceremonial platter for display, the coppa amatoria or loving cup in the various ballata, gamelio and impaliata types, the twin-handled globular vase on a high foot. Examples of the best production, such as trays, basins, pitchers, albarelli and bottles, were often part of wedding trousseaus.
The Compendiario style, so-called because it summarised the scenes portrayed, was already present in the second half of the sixteenth century. It only appeared to a certain extent in Deruta production in the seventeenth century. The continuation of the pictorial canons of the Renaissance which preferred formal, bi-dimensional solutions, a study of the anatomy and luxurious decoration appeared to be the greatest obstacle to the approximate figures proposed by the painter’s skilful, decisive stroke in the compendiario style. Instead, the shapes became more complicated with pods, embossing and sinuous edges, especially in the lobed dishes, stands and salt cellars, and in the stoups and inkwells which marked the production of that period.
Lastly, the calligraphy style, with its monochrome blue or orange decoration, consisted of closely woven foliage with inserts depicting landscapes, hunting scenes and zoomorphic images.
The production of ceramics has always been particularly rich in the area surrounding Gualdo Tadino, thanks to the abundance of essential factors for its manufacture. In fact, the dense woods of the Apennines supplied the wood to fire the numerous kilns, the various streams turned the mills which ground the components for the glazes, the quarry of Mount Fringuello supplied the iron oxide, the basic element for the famous gold and ruby reflections and last but not least, the pits of Matalotta where they dug and extracted fine quality clay. Their self-sufficiency since ancient times in the raw materials to produce ceramics certainly helped this particular art to develop constantly.
Finds from the archaeological site of Colle dei Mori show us that ceramics were produced in the area from the 12th century B.C. Some of the fragments found are roughly made and fired, but others are more refined and carefully made, evidence of a certain evolution in their processes and their taste. Traces of the production of majolica and earthenware have already been found dating back to the prehistoric period. However, from the 13th century onwards those same objects became popular and were to express a noble, figurative civilisation produced by the hands of true masters of their craft.
Written documents in the fourteenth century record the first supplies of ceramics. Both the shapes and the decorations of the pottery recall the types which already existed around Gubbio, Orvieto and Deruta. Only in the second half of the fifteenth century do we find evidence of the quality of the majolica of Gualdo Tadino. A document of the Governors of Gubbio, dated 1456, authorises the sale of the precious olle and pignatte (jars and cooking pots) of Gualdo Tadino in the town markets.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, certain scholars believed it was possible to produce lustre ceramics. The finished piece was given extraordinary gold and ruby reflections after a third firing using the smoke from burning broom. Worthy of note are the twenty-six tiles with ruby reflections, probably 17th-century, which can still be admired on the façade of the church of Madonna del Piano, four examples of which are preserved in the Louvre Museum.
We have an increased number of accounts from the 17th century, a period in which the potters of Gualdo Tadino also worked outside their home town. In 1673, whilst Lorenzo Pignani was working in Rome, he was granted the right by Clement X to use a completely new technique to apply gold to his majolica. The nineteenth century saw a big rise in ceramic production, but in the second half of the same century, the destiny of ceramics in Gualdo Tadino changed and it was to become famous throughout the world: Paolo Rubboli (1838-1890) began once more to use the technique of gold and ruby metallic lustres. His work encouraged the production of superior quality artistic majolica and was to have a positive effect on the ceramics of the town. The traditional types of decoration produced by the factories in Gualdo consisted mainly of ornate, grotesque figures, foliage, slivers, “sections” and other patterns, usually on a blue background, with classical scenes or subjects (episodes and characters from ancient history or of a sacred nature, copies of prints and famous paintings) and enriched with gold and ruby lustres. Extremely important were the ceremonial platters, with or without the border, depicting classical images, lustred with gold and ruby inside the traditional muffle kilns described in detail by Cipriano Piccolpasso in his Three Books of the Potter's Art. The true protagonist of the lustre technique was the muffle kiln. Examples can still be seen of this special kiln for the third firing, which was fired by bundles of broom (which grows abundantly along the Apennine range of Gualdo). This plant was particularly suitable for producing the smoke required to produce the magnificent metallic lustres.
The archives show potters were working in Gubbio from 1300 onwards. We have evidence from the Middle Ages of an archaic majolica with green and brown, geometric or foliage patterns. However, its fame was linked to the great potter, Giorgio Andreoli, known as Mastro Giorgio, who arrived in Gubbio in 1489 from Intra, on Lake Maggiore. Mastro Giorgio was the acknowledged maestro of the art of applying lustre, which made Gubbio’s ceramics famous: shades of gold, silver, green and above all a beautiful ruby red, which was even more intense than that of Deruta. This new shade of red, which made it stand out from the red of Deruta, was developed by the great maestro, who in the same period also the two-tone blue and gold. Plates, albarelli, cups, goblets and vases came out of Mastro Giorgio’s workshop. However, it was to be his raised plate on a low stand which, in around 1530, was to become the principal object in the great mastro’s production. The new technique was applied to the narrative tradition known as istoriato and to many decorations (arabesques, palms, grotesque figures and candelabra, trophies and garlands) and to the traditional colours of orange, blue, yellow and green. There followed a long period of decadence, after which the production of ceramics picked up in the second half of the nineteenth century when Umbria was involved in a cultural movement aiming to recapture the Renaissance tradition. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the potters of Gubbio began to follow other paths. In addition to their majolica lustreware, they produced bucchero, which they burnished and then decorated by scratching the surface or by using polychrome and gold glazes. Other ceramics were inspired by the productions of the Middle Ages, in which cobalt blue was the predominant colour.
The ceramics of Orvieto have a prestigious, thousand-year-old tradition as their visiting card. It all began at the same time as the first human settlements, and production since then has accompanied the life of the people of Orvieto throughout their history, alternating periods of crisis and others of extraordinary artistic splendour. During the Etruscan period, the ceramics of Orvieto enjoyed a very successful phase with the production of bucchero. This was characterised by the technique of “cylinder” decoration, of ceramics with red, black and silver figures. In the Middle Ages, a new, major, creative impetus gave the antique majolica of Orvieto an undisputed supremacy to become a “model” for other Italian production centres. Between the end of the thirteenth century and half way through the fourteenth century, the typical green and brown majolica on a white glaze enjoyed its period of greatest splendour. Enhanced with a web decoration for the background and rich shapes, it combined iconographic design and stylistic sophistication, portraying birds, fish, animals, human beings and beasts with human heads. In the fifteenth century, the Vascellari, as the masters in the art of ceramics were known in Orvieto, introduced new colours, yellow and cobalt blue, new decoration techniques, such as sgraffito and green relief. Archaeological excavations have enabled us to see what, at one time, were the greatest temples of ceramic production in Orvieto. Examples include the fifteenth century kiln near Pozzo della Cava where some important objects of the period are on display, and the nearby pottery, discovered in 1995, which continued to operate up to half way through the sixteenth century. The rediscovery of antique majolica was influenced above all by finds from the Middle Ages taken out of the butti (rubbish dumps) of the palace kitchens and houses, which provided the foundations and incentives for the revival of ceramic production. As in other Umbrian towns, it opened Orvieto to the prospect of revisiting historic shapes and antique decorations to adapt them to the new local craft production. During the two wars, ceramic craft was, in fact, reborn, inspired by the reinvention of new shapes and modernisation of the decorations which the sensitivity and imagination of the masters had created in the distant Middle Ages. The famous jugs with the wide protruding spout (the “galletto”) in the Orvieto style date back to this period.
The other towns of Umbrian ceramics: Città di Castello and Umbertide
The region of Umbria is scattered with places producing ceramics and factories are now being built outside the towns with an ancient ceramic tradition. Città di Castello and Umbertide are an example.
Città di Castello is the home of ceramic companies producing the typical, local, heraldic decorations. These businesses have known how to update tradition and represent the innovative side of Umbrian ceramics.
The artistic ceramics of Umbertide are covered with a black glaze called nero fratta, which creates impressive metallic reflections. From the beginning of the twentieth century, Umbertide has seen an intense production of ceramic objects which go beyond the Neo-Renaissance traditions and have achieved a futuristic footprint, which is also the mark of the town’s majolica today, making it globally renowned.