Umbria Handicrafts: Terracotta, Ceramics & Maiolica

Ceramics workshop

Thematic itinerary

Since the most far-off times, the territory between the course of the upper and middle Tiber and that of its tributaries the Chiascio and the Paglia was settled by communities whose terracotta artefacts, moulded with the clays that are sedimented in the soil of this area, constitute important documents and evolutional proofs, all the way up to the Umbrians and the Etruscans.

For the most part the latter developed, for covers and decorations in places of worship or for ornaments for everyday use, a refined a varied productive and artistic skill that lies at the base of a tradition that has not been interrupted down the centuries.

The production of terracotta, however, is documented from the 13th century and the use of this material, since the earliest times, testifies to the true vocation of the Umbrian people for its manufacture.

Further proof is supplied by the presence of kilns, which were widespread until the early 20th century and some of which are still active, where the simple production of glazed terracotta wares (Ripabianca and Ficulle), intended for embellishing 18th-century cupboards and tables, alternated with the more refined production of decorated maiolica artefacts. Despite the deep-seated and widespread tradition of terracotta manufacture, the transformations brought about by the coming of the industrial age led to the disappearance of many workshops and the closure of many kilns in the Umbria region.

Terracotta vases

What is certain is that it was on this manufacture that the foundations were laid for an artisan culture that, in its turn, sustained the greatest expressions of the ceramic art.

Suffice it to think of the brilliance of bucchero, of the Renaissance ‘grotesques’, of the magical reflections of lustre, of the innovative shapes of modern ceramics and of the production of ceramics for the building industry and for tiles.

A vast range of products that speak of Umbria to the whole world and that combine perfectly with the charm of the region’s country houses, the palazzos in its historic centers and its cottages, or which become containers of other outstanding Umbrian products such as oil and wine or of authentic and delicious typical regional foodstuffs.

In Umbria this art has been considerably developed in numerous, important towns, such as Deruta, Perugia, Gubbio, Gualdo Tadino, Orvieto, etc., and finds continuity in a handicraft that never ceases to research, document and safeguard its original characteristics in order to enhance the quality and specificity of the present-day production of each locality.

Deruta ceramics

Some recommended itineraries:
a) San Giustino, Citta’ di Castello, Umbertine, Gubbio, Gualdo Tadino, Nocera Umbra
b) Perugia, Cordiano, Deruta – Ripabianca, Montefalco, Marsciano – Campignano
c) Otricoli – Calvi dell’Umbria, Orvieto, Castel Viscardo, Ficulle, Citta’ della Pieve, Castiglione del Lago

Some manufacturing techniques…

The lustre tradition
Metallic lustre is an iridescence that, according to the traditional technique, is obtained by applying a paste containing metal salts on the surface of an already fired and decorated ceramic artifact, which is fired a further time in a special chamber in the kiln, known as the “muffle kiln”, in an atmosphere without any oxygen, with the aim of transforming the metal salts into pure metals. The particles are incorporated into the glaze, which has been softened by the heat, thus producing the iridescent effect typical of lustre.

There are various techniques for producing this type of decoration: paste lustre, acid and in-glaze lustre, lustre through volatilisation and resinate lustre.

The metallic reflection, on the other hand, is a type of decoration that consists of a thin deposit of precious metals, generally gold and platinum.

Mastro Giorgio - detail

A brief history
The history of lustre or “reverberation” was and still is one of the most fascinating and mysterious techniques in the ceramic tradition. This technique probably originated in the 9th century and developed simultaneously in Persia and in Mesopotamia.

It spread throughout North Africa and Spain with the Islamic conquest and reached Italy in 1500 via various Italian merchants who imported Spanish lustreware through the port of Majorca. And it is from this place-name, Majorca, that the term maiolica derives. Several contemporary Italian ceramicists immediately adopted this new technique, including Master Giorgio of Gubbio. After the final splendors of the 17th century, this production disappeared and only in 1873 was it revived by the ceramist Paolo Bubboli from Pescara, who, together with his wife started to manufacture high-quality lustreware in Gualdo Tadino.

Gualdo Tadino ceramics

Bucchero is a type of shiny black ceramic made by using a very fine clay that is rich in iron oxide. Once the desired object has been created, it is fired in a kiln in an atmosphere without oxygen to allow those chemical transformations to take place that are responsible for the black color of the artefact.

After shaping and drying, the object is polished with sandpaper and iron wool before being burnished, that is to say the artefact is polished with box-wood sticks.

Sometimes the surface is also decorated with carvings, made with a metal point, embellished with gold and platinum applied with a paintbrush.

When this is all completed, the artefact is immersed in wood coal, fired in special kilns at a temperature higher than 900°C and becomes black, whilst the chemical solvent of the decorations evaporates and allows the noble metal to regain its natural color.

In 1928 Polidoro Benvenuti introduced Gubbio-style bucchero, in imitation of Etruscan bucchero.
Courtesy of Umbria 2000