Monday, 10 March 2014

Italy: Where Ceramic is an Art

Ceramics is not new to Italy. It has been flourishing there since ages. Initially, the ancient Greek potters settled on the coasts of southern Italy and gave rise to local Italian pottery. This was the small beginning of the age of great Italian Pottery. Artistically the best age for Ceramics in Italy is considered to be between the middle ages and renaissance. During this period, the ceramists and artists thrived and its beauty even today is fondly remembered and widely respected.

Thanks to the perfect combination of function and art that is missing even in modern times, ceramics gives that touch of practical and decorative beauty that surely lends usefulness and style in almost every Italian house.

Maiolica (Pronounced Majolica): The first name of Ceramics in Italy
The name “Maiolica” (majolica) comes from the Spanish island of Majorca where ships carrying lusterware from Valencia stopped on their way to Italy. Actually these ceramic wares were not manufactured there, but it was believed by the Italian traders and hence the name stuck. By the 1500s in Italy the term had broadened its’ meaning from lusterware to ‘tin glazed earthenware.’ The basic designs employed in these imported ware were Spanish or Islamic. With time however, the Italians started innovating to develop their own styles, surface finishes and shapes.
Italian Maiolica was first produced around 1350 as earthenware with an opaque white tin oxide glaze. Its most outstanding feature is the beautiful, colorful decoration which never fades or loses its beauty. Maiolica is usually associated with the Renaissance when it hit its aesthetic peak, but it had been produced in Italy since the 13th century and is still produced today.
Early Maiolica was decorated in just two colors: copper-green and manganese–brown. Between 1350 and 1460 improvements were made in kilns and glazes which established the polychrome (multi-color) decoration that is now associated with the renowned Renaissance ceramics of Italy.
Small towns and big cities like Siena witnessed widespread recognition in high-quality Maiolica. They had developed styles of their own, by the end of 15th century. The most popular were Deruta nears Perugia and Montelupo near Florence. The benefit of both these towns is that they are situated on river banks and have an easy access to natural clay, which is best for production of Maiolica. By the end of 16th Century, there was considerable trade of Maiolica in towns of Sicily and northern Europe. As the cities grew, so did the consumption and production of Maiolica. The church of Madonna dei Bagni near Deruta still has over 600 Maiolica votives (plaques offered to the Madonna asking for saintly intervention), dating from the 17th century to the present.
The Making of Maiolica: Prime Technology
Let us see the steps involved in the making of Maiolica:
01: The Potter
In the first step, the potter makes the shape by his hands. Nowadays, we call this casting. This is done normally on a Potters wheel.
02: First Firing
The dried pieces are then wheeled into the kiln in a rack. The firing is done at 1030 degrees centigrade. Thereafter slow cooling is done by closing the kiln for hours. The piece, called “Biscotto” (Bisque, Biscuit for tiles) by then gets its typical terracotta red color.
03: Glazing
The cooled pieces are then dipped in fast drying liquid “Primo Bianco” or first white or “Smalto” or enamel. It is then ready to be painted.
04: Painting
The painting is done. There are many Italian forms of painting. This is one activity that really separates the Italian stylish ceramic ware from the world. The colors and the glazes used here are again inventions of the Italians themselves.
05: Second Firing
The pieces are then re-fired at 920 degree Celsius to permit the paint to settle into the piece. It generally takes 12 to 24 hours of soaking.

The Decline: 18th and 19th century
The 18th and 19th century saw a decline in demand of the Italiance Maiolica. This was due to the increased competition from other European countries as well as the fact that improvement in trade ties with Asian countries added to the easy availability of ceramic ware.
However, during 1880s to early 1900 a movement was started to re-establish Deruta and other Umbrian towns to produce the Maiolica design and grow its production. In 1900 a ceramics museum was created to promote historical and cultural research. The museum was founded with the aim of serving the artists of Deruta and the history of Deruta. In 1903 the Communal School of Design was set up with the primary goal of training craftsmen in the traditional techniques. They wanted to recreate the antique and traditional types of production and imitate Renaissance styles. Due to the creation of the museum and school, Deruta today is one of the leading exporters of fine Italian Maiolica.

The lustre technique
In 1948, Giorgio Andreolli introduced Lustre technique called Gubbio lustres which are famous worldwide. Mastro Giorgio had worked out his own secret formula for majolica lustre, a classy technique employed in the decoration of majolica during the Renaissance period. It consisted of a beautiful sparkling effect obtained by applying silver, copper and other substances on a previously glazed majolica. A third firing in very complex conditions was the key to the success of this process.
Maestro Giorgio’s polychrome pottery was so beautiful that he soon became the most recognized supplier of tiles to noblemen, dukes and the Pope. His original recipes were lost, making it impossible to replicate the outstanding results obtained by the ancient ceramicist.

The istoriato ware

Istoriato is an Italian word meaning story telling.
It is a classic style of Renaissance featuring narrative scenes and figurative subjects. It was much admired and sought after by important patrons of Maiolica. Masks, grotesques, arms trophies, dolphin headed scrolls, flowers, baskets of fruit, winged cherubs, and banners with inscriptions, legendary labours of ancient heroes, biblical references with classicized interiors, trophies and coats of arms, music, portrait medallions, human figures and winged monsters were all motifs of the period, painted on large ornamental pieces.

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