When talking about ceramics, we must always keep in mind the difference between mass
produced and hand made pieces. With the expression “mass produced” ceramics, we usually
mean the extremely successful and world-renowned tile producing industry; on the other hand,
hand-made ceramics, which we call maiolica, refer to a centuries-old tradition kept alive in ateliers
and workshops all over the peninsula.
A lot has been written abut pottery by experts and lovers, professors and collectors, yet the best
reference text remains L’Arte della Maiolica Italiana, published for the first time in 1973 by
Florentine antiquarian Giovanni Conti, a truly captivating text, filled with emotions. This article will
present some passages of Conti’s work: these are not dedicated to specific styles or areas of
production, but to the extraordinary nature of the figulinio’ s craft, to the magic and uniqueness
that, today just as in the past, characterize it.
“Maiolica” is made with soil. Clay is soil, enamels and polishes are soil, pigments are soil. Soil is a
dry and cold element that likes to mix with another cold — but wet — one: water. Water cleanses
the soil, it frees it from the impurity of waste and makes it plastic and malleable, ready to be
shaped by a molding will. Soil and water are, therefore, just like the substance and the soul of
maiolica, while the other two elements taking part to the process, air and fire, are like the
emanations of a spirit acting continuously on the numerous transformations of matter.
Because it is the result of a structured relation among the four essential elements, the maiolica
object is a perfect representation of a microcosm that synthetically reproduces the essence, quality
and phenomenology of the macrocosm, a talisman capable to merge the properties of inferior
bodies with the virtues and values of divine principles.
The idea is common to many of the greatest mythologies of creation, where the origin of human
nature itself is symbolically represented by the art of pottery. In Ancient Egypt, Knum was the “lord
of the lathe” who created humankind, and the Egyptian genesis tells us man was molded with soil
and that, once he became a living creature, he repeated the act of the generating divinity to be part
of the demiurge’s work, to understand matter and become himself creator.
One of the many ascetic practices of Zen Buddhism is Kasina meditation, and involves the
contemplation of a piece of clay for a specific length of time, while thinking about its many
properties and attributes until its “spiritual reflection,” that is, what the clay is supposed to become,
Unconsciously, potters experience this connection with clay, the raw matter of their job, of their
creating, every day: while working on a piece, potters establish a dialogue with clay and reach their
maturity as artists, embrace their dignity of demiurges. Just like alchemists, potters use clay as the
raw matter of their opus, may that be common, mundane soil, the precious, dark one of Egypt, or
the shining, colorful projection powder made with minerals, and indispensable to make gold: the
ultimate, perfect matter. Just like alchemists, potters also use soil that comes from the heart of the
mountains and from the ambiguous glow of rivers; they cleanse it by washing it several times, they
make it soft and malleable, ready to receive their own imprint.
All these steps belongs to alchemical knowledge, they follow the natural development of matter.
Indeed, the shaping of a pottery piece is the conclusion of a first artistic creation: it turns the “real”
into a fantastic image. And then, the catalyzing action of a third element, aerial and drying, gives to
the dried object a special consistency, an anticipation of the stabilizing action of fire.
Then, it is Piccolpasso in the mid-16th century to tell us about the instruments and techniques of
pottery making. He accurately describes how to build a lathe and briefly discusses baking methods
and how to prepare the oven, that needs to burn for 11-12 hours. The piece emerging from the first
baking, the biscuit, is imitation and surrogate of a most perfect stone that makes everything
But because it needs to be used everyday, a vase’s natural porosity needs to become more
impermeable and plenty a technique were developed to this aim: siliceous soil, liquid “ingobbio,”
lead-based enamels. The whitening and water-proof layer of maiolica is created by a stanniferous
enamel that sticks to the biscuit during its second baking and that allows for polychrome decoration
to be carried out. This technique was well known in the medieval Islamic world, as witnessed by
the many descriptions found in the literature of those times.
Originally, “maiolica” or “di maiolica” referred to enameled and painted pottery similar to that of the
Moors of Muslim Spain that used to make its way to Italy through Maiorca. It was decorated with
oriental-like motifs, and made even richer by a particular type of iridescent varnishing that changed
from ruby red to isabelline yellow and Spanish fly green, from the cold, silvery nuances of metal to
the warmer tones of gold. This decoration was egregiously reproduced by our potters and was
made on already varnished and baked pieces, which were then baked once more in a special
reverberatory oven. The Italian version of Moorish pottery was also known as “di maiolica” or
“maiolica,” even without the characteristic iridescence given by the third baking process, which was
particularly common in the ateliers of Deruta and Gubbio, where Master Giorgio Andreoli would
work on already painted pieces.
The real invention of Italian maiolica was the skillful use of a full pictorial palette on its tricky and
dusty stanniferous surface before the second baking, straight after the varnishing of the biscuit...
It’s a mixture of a thousand savvy ideas and expedients able to create something new, an evolution
that reached its apex at the beginning of the ‘500s. They are absolute and inimitable inventions,
secrets that each atelier considered their very own, symbols of a level of respectability almost
always synonym with success. Written sources often refer to “baking properly” and “putting in the
oven properly,” but also mention many delusions, in spite of having followed every passage
Success and failure are equally accepted, perhaps trying to interpret it all as a fateful matter of
fortuity, and calling for those “celestial influences that work in pottery as they work in men.” Indeed,
being a potter seems to be affected by some esoteric sensitivity which, in crafts, is the first and
most important sign of an ascetic attitude.
Even if we live in profoundly technological time, this attitude is still typical of those who partake in
the fascinating alchemical process of pottery making.