Crazy about Ceramics: Deruta
While vibrant Vietri is a fun entry point into the colorful world of Italian ceramics, its knick-knack universe does not always present itself in bella figura – Italian stylishness. To meet the royalty of Italian ceramics we need to move closer to the renaissance roots of contemporary Italian aesthetics. Located about 150 km to the South-East of renaissance cradle Florence, Deruta – today an outer suburb of Perugia – which looks back at at least eight centuries of ceramics production, remains intimately tied to renaissance artistic form and imagery. As we will see, some trademark Deruta patterns can indeed be directly traced back to the work of renaissance greats like Perugino and Raphael.
The plague, which wiped out an estimated 70% of the population of Florence (Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone gives you a feel for social chaos in times of plague) not long after it had arrived in Genoa in 1347 has, in hindsight, been an extreme act of creative destruction. For one, the assets of the deceased fell to the survivors providing the venture capital that underwrote the creation of a new art and a new way of life that blended Medieval Christian piety with the rationality and boldness of Roman antiquity. Closer to topic, the more practical among the plague survivors tried to find reasons – other than religious guilt and atonement theories – why the black death had struck their society. During the Middle Ages pottery in Italy had been mostly of the plain, porous terracotta (aka clay, earthenware) type that could not easily be kept clean and was imagined by many Italians to have somehow contributed to the disease. Hence, much of the stock of pottery produced between the 13th and early 15th centuries was smashed and discarded making it today difficult to reconstruct the beginnings of Deruta ceramics production in the early Middle Ages. A Deruta potters guild is documented for the year 1336, but the origins of pottery must reach further back.
What we do know is that until about 1420 Italian pottery was in general a rather drab affair. Production was in objects of everyday use (bowls, jugs, vases etc) with minimal decorations. Geometric patterns and stylized animals or flowers were as fancy as it got and even those where not original inventions, but based on imports of Arabic pottery from North Africa. Apart from clayware, lead-based glazing was also in use. The color palette was restricted to green/turquoise (copper) and purple/brown (manganese).
It took a second wave of external influence, this time from Spain (via trading hub Florence), to lift Italian and Deruta pottery to the level of sophistication that befitted renaissance Italy, then the wealthiest and most advanced region in Europe. In our article on Vietri we have already described what maiolica pottery is and how in the 15th century it had found its way from Spanish morisco artisans to Italy. Maiolica being the frescoes of the ceramics world – one cannot correct the decorations painted on the absorbent, pre-fired tin glazed base – challenged ceramicists to a mastery that peaked in the century between about 1440 and 1540. Maiolica allowed for a broad range of colors and a rich repertoire of themes, shapes and patterns which became available by simply picking up what was happening in other parts of the exuberant arts world of the renaissance. As the term renaissance, ‘rebirth’, suggests, a powerful source of inspiration was drawn from the wall paintings and floor mosaics in the ruins of ancient Roman palaces and villas, most famously Nero’s palace in Rome, the Domus Aurea. Raphael is said to have abseiled into the Domus Aurea – it was and remains buried by meters of soil – to study the paintings and Michelangelo traveled with his yardstick to what is left of emperor Hadrian’s villa (a massive complex the size of a town) in Tivoli, East of Rome to measure the proportions of Roman columns and arches.
Towards the end of the 16th century, with the renaissance gradually entering decline, ceramics studios settled into more ornate or even overloaded, fragmented “baroque” styles, losing the bold spontaneity of the pioneering days. The shift to mass production may have also contributed to diminishing artistic expression. Nonetheless, Deruta clung to its strong renaissance heritage through the centuries and managed to conserve an artistic vocabulary that makes Deruta pottery unique to this day. In many people’s view the charm of bringing a few pieces of Deruta ceramics back home lies in splashing a burst of renaissance glory into our irritatingly uniform modern living environments.
Traditional Deruta Designs, Patterns and Techniques
Albarelli – Storage Vessels
Albarelli were jars placed in long rows on shelves in pharmacies to store powdery or oily herbs and medicines. They reached Italy through above-mentioned Spanish trade routes in the early renaissance of the first half of the 15th century. Have a look at the beautiful collection of Italian renaissance albarelli on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and also note how – by and large – the brazen designs of the earlier pieces gradually give way to more tame and loaded designs as time went on.
Albarelli were the most commonly produced maiolica ceramics in Italy during the early renaissance. They have a very recognizable cylindrical base shape that is often a bit slimmer in the middle for better handling. The decoration is usually not symmetrical i.e. the front side – carrying a label – is painted more richly than the back. Initially albarelli did not have lids but were closed by spanning a sheet of parchment or similar material onto the fish lipped top and tightening it with a piece of string. Later and contemporary albarelli are equipped with fitting lids, however, see above.
The antique albarelli displayed above also show the rapid progression towards more color: up to the first half of the 15th century only green and brown (and of course the white base color) were available. Cobalt blue was added to the color scheme during the course of the century, followed by antimony yellow and antimony/iron orange. A strong red remained elusive for much longer, however, although a maroon tone could be achieved.
Istoriato – Ceramics Telling Stories
A recent April to August 2018 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, curated by Jamie Gabbarelli, illustrated the profound creative impact of another renaissance invention, namely prints, on Italian ceramics workshops. Prints were the internet of art of the renaissance. They allowed the inexpensive and fast distribution of images, including copies of major works of fine art from across Italy and Europe to centers of ceramics production. Potters used the prints as templates for painting their wares (have a look at this lovely example) and thus vastly extended their artistic reach from the essentially ornamental to the narrative, for those prints depicted the art of the time which often visualized stories from the Bible and recited tales, myths and allegories from Roman and Greek antiquity.
Interestingly – we will return to this point – some renaissance greats actively employed the medium of print (by bringing engravers into their workshops) to earn extra money from the sale of print versions of their designs and in doing so also distributed their work more widely, multiplying their fame. Raphael, for example, was so good at the prints business that he became a favorite in the ceramics workshops in Italy and his influence on maiolica art persists, particularly in Deruta, into our days. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was a lot less “open source” than Raphael and rejected the idea of sharing his designs with the world. His influence on ceramics is minimal compared to the likes of Raphael, Perugino or Mantegna.
Of course, the exchange of images was not confined to Italy. Albrecht Dürer‘s masterly prints made it across the Alps from Germany into Italian maiolica workshops as did designs of French artists, mainly towards the end of the 16th century. A previous source of inspiration, Spain, on the other hand lost its influence as Italian workmanship had by now surpassed the earlier, imported Spanish maiolica and imports all but ceased.
Flick through the splendid Getty Museum Italian maiolica catalogue, the large maiolica collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Deruta maiolica kept at the British Museum for some extraordinary examples of renaissance istoriato art and note the well-preserved brilliance of the colors. Maiolica colors last nearly for ever giving us a good idea of the original color palette used during the renaissance and making maiolica sought after collectibles among nobility (Medici, d’Este, della Rovere, for example), popes and moneyed aristocracy (notably J P Morgan and the Rothschilds). They are still produced in Deruta today, but not on a large scale, presumably for lack of demand for very pricey top end masterpieces and maybe also for a dearth of master ceramicists capable of living up to high renaissance standards.
The gallery below demonstrates the rapid development istoriato painting in Deruta underwent within just half a century.
Bella Donna (Piatto da Pompa) – Beautiful Ladies & Heroic Men on ‘Pompous Plates’
An affordable high renaissance (15th and early 16th century) invention that has become one of the most cherished trademarks of Deruta ceramics are Bella Donna display plates depicting idealized/classicized portraits of beautiful women and handsome men clad in flamboyant renaissance garb. The names of the beautiful people or general romantic inscriptions (in Latin) can appear in an elaborately convoluted garland underneath the face, and the border of the plate embracing the portrait is often broad and compartmentalized or adorned with other iconic Deruta patterns described in the following section.
The Belle Donne on sale in Deruta today are mostly replicas of renaissance artifacts (sometimes – thankfully – referring to the original on the back) or are lose interpretations of ancient models.
A charming contemporary variant on the Bella Donna theme are more or less matching couples on two mirror-symmetric plates that are meant to be placed facing each other.
Enduring Renaissance – Raffaellesco, Ricco Deruta, Petal Back
Returning from the narrative and figurative heights of maiolica making to the more common pattern designs which today characterize Deruta production, there are – as usual in the not so strict science of ceramics – different accounts on just where Deruta artisans picked up the now ubiquitous Raffaellesco (Raphaelesque) pattern some time along the way in the 16th century high renaissance. The name obviously points to famous painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) as its source, but it remains unclear whether it was derived from the strange creatures that populate Raffaello’s Little St. Michael or whether the pattern was adapted from the grotesque ornaments that frame the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican, the latter said to be inspired by Raffaello’s research into ancient Roman decorations (famously, above-mentioned Domus Aurea which by then was subterranean so that entering it decaying vaults was like descending into a cave or grotto – giving rise to the term ‘grotesque’). In any way, Raphaelesque patterns became very common in Deruta from the mid 17th century on and today are probably the most dominant motif in Deruta ceramics. You can find the bright yellow and blue little monsters against a radiant white backdrop in every ceramics shop in Deruta, and beyond. Some vendors will also tell you the story of raffaellesco beasts and their steaming breath symbolizing fair winds and safe voyage for the seafaring Italian traders of the renaissance. Cute.
At least as popular as the Raffaellesco, and equally murky regarding its origins, is the Ricco Deruta design. Supposedly derived from decorative elements used in frescoes by Pietro Vannucci called Perugino in the 16th century it is another colorful pattern dominated by a stark, clear blue together with yellow, orange and turquoise elements. It comes in many variations, but is mostly symmetrical and reminiscent of sheaves of wheat or the bound scrolls used in Roman antiquity. The ring keeping the wheat together makes it look like the French fleur-de-lis emblem and maybe therefore comes across – in European eyes – like a coat of arms. Ricco is Italian for ‘rich’ and the pattern apparently symbolizes prosperity.
When going through photos of Perugino frescoes I could, by the way, not find much that reminded me of the ricco design (although they were crawling with grotesque dragons which looked quite Raffaellesco prototypes to me). This supports a competing/complementary theory on the origins of Ricco Deruta which holds that it is the result of a centuries-long transformation from a simple 16th century floral volute motif – see Perugino’s Madonna with Child as an example – into what has become known as Ricco from the 20th century onwards.
The oldest of the trinity of designs presented in this section is Petal Back which appeared in the late 15th century and is just about self-explanatory. Petal Back ornaments were typically used on the verso of open objects such as bowls and plates and, no surprise, often utilized egg-shaped petals as their base element, arranged in crossing stripes of blue and orange petals and interspersed with infill in the gaps between the stripes. Again, there are no hard rules here and other geometric shapes can take the place of the petal, knotted ropes, leafy garlands or stylized flowers. Petal back is not even strictly confined to the back of things, but can creep over the rim to form a broad border around a central theme, or can even become the theme itself.
Petal Back is still common in Deruta ceramics workshops today, but as an echo of geometric Arabic designs, in my view less tipico than other core renaissance themes. In other words it looks a lot more like things you feel you have seen before than do unique Ricco or Raffaellesco.
Lustre – Reflections of the Divine
Technically, maiolica is the results of two firings. The first is of plain clay which after cooling is dipped into the tin-glaze liquid, then painted with color pigments and finally put back into the furnace for a second time so that glaze and pigments fuse and turn into the typical vitreous finish.
When comparing the results of this process to the imported Hispano-Moresque maiolica the golden iridescent hue – or lustre – that was typical for the latter did not materialize which was a problem because the audience sought the copperish and golden glint. For Christians gold was traditionally associated with divinity which is also why skies always appear golden in Byzantine religious art (see the photo of Monreale Cathedral to the left). So as the Spanish manufacturers did not divulge how to make lustre, Italian ceramics workshops had to experiment themselves, enlisting the assistance of alchemists who were obsessed with the idea of making gold and therefore knew a lot about all things glittery. They succeeded before long by applying a coating of metal salts onto maiolica that had already gone through the standard two-stage process and firing it a third time in a low oxygen environment and at reduced heat (like smoking ham). Deruta was the first Italian maiolica center that managed to produce quality golden lustre, probably towards the end of the 15th century. The first assured Deruta lustre artefact is a 1501 plaque of Saint Sebastian kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.
For examples of lustred maiolica click on the fourth istoriato and the second bella donna shown above.
Compendiario, Crespina and Chinoiserie: towards Baroque Pomp and the China Rage
Deruta today stands synonymous for the magic of renaissance maiolica. Quality originals dating back to the renaissance, like the Deruta istoriato pieces shown above, remain highly priced and can easily fetch in the tens of thousands of US dollars at auction. Yet time did not stand still in Deruta. The town went with fashion and economic circumstances and towards the end of the 16th century followed the lead of Faenza in turning to Compendiario style which is at the same time simpler and more complex than renaissance design. Plane shapes were broken up, for example, into undulating compartments of Crespina type (crespina means rippled or wrinkled; imitated popular metal wares, so-called ‘repoussé‘ of the 17th century) and the decorations were made to fit into their patches. Monolithic or at least dominant central motifs which made some maiolica look like small versions of frescoes gave way to patchworks of simpler design elements. Compendiario stands for ‘short-hand’ i.e simplification.
While beauty always lies in the eye of the beholder, it is hard to compare the istoriato items above to the Deruta compendiario pieces below and view it as artistic progress. In fact, it was not even easy to find an example for Deruta compendiario in the major collections. Obviously they were much less in favor with collectors.
One can speculate about the reasons for the artistic decline in the 17th century. Changed, cruder tastes and fewer commissions from rich patrons might have played a role. What is certain is that compendiario takes less time to make and accelerated the drift into mass production.
Another game changer for 17th century maiolica artists in Italy was the importation by Portugese and Dutch (‘Delftware’) traders of Ming Chinese porcelain. Potters reacted to the new competition by imitating Chinese styles in maiolica technique giving rise to the so-called Calligraphic style in monochrome yellow, orange, green and of course blue on white. Designs also picked up some of the typical Chinese designs like idyllic landscapes and still lifes populated with animals and plants.
The 17th century must have been a difficult time for Deruta maiolica makers. They were essentially trying to mimic porcelain and metal wares with maiolica, an endeavor with questionable results. Things only worsened in the 18th century, a time known in Deruta as a century of crisis.
More About Deruta and Umbria Ceramics
Telling the story of Deruta ceramics on a few pages and in an orderly, appealing narrative is no easy task given the lack of publicly available sources and the incredible breadth of the topic. Of course, I had to focus on the basics. However, if you got interested, and would like to know more, then there are means and ways:
- Visit the Deruta Ceramics Museum
- Have a look at ancient Deruta tiles and votive plaques at churches in the wider Deruta area: the Abbazia di San Pietro (N43.101853, E12.394922) in Perugia which has some really ancient Deruta floor tiles in its sacristy (and is otherwise also very worthwhile) and the Santuario Madonna del Bagno (N42.963682, E12.402183) just South of Deruta
- Attend real-life pottery classes in Deruta at the Scuola Internazionale d’Arte Ceramica or at least check out the Khan Academy video on maiolica making
- Search for collection catalogs published by museums that hold major collections of Italian maiolica, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the J Paul Getty Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Find a copy – they go for, no joke, around 1000 US dollars for example at Amazon – of the probably most authoritative book on Deruta ceramics (it is bilingual in Italian and English): Fiocco, Carola and Gabriella Gherardi. La ceramica di Deruta dal XIII al XVIII secolo. Perugia : Volumnia, 1994. Nos. 60, 69.
- Simply visit shops in Deruta, and in particular the large Grazia factory (N42.98556, E12.41931) which also runs its own little museum: if you are lucky you will meet the owner, Dr Ubaldo Grazia, who has a good command of English and can tell you more about his dynasty of ceramicists (an item presumably made by his father is part of the British Museum collection)
When visiting Deruta, other major centers of Umbrian ceramics production are of course not far away: the lovely hill town of Gubbio is about 45 minutes to the North-East with the pottery town of Gualdo Tadino nearby and Orvieto with its splendid cathedral is one hour to the South-West. It can be fun to develop a feel for the differences between the pottery traditions, like Gubbio designs being more finely grounded, generally more precise and stricter and its gold luster less brassy-yellow. Also the blue is different in that Deruta blues are colder and less brilliant. Have a look at the set of six istoriato items above and note how the only non-Deruta sample from Urbino sticks out due to its different blue.
Buying Deruta Ceramics
There are many, really many shops around town. On the outskirts – easy parking – along the Via Tiberina Sud there are at least a dozen including
- top labels such as Grazia Maioliche at N42.98556, E12.41931 who sells a very wide range of maiolica from the traditional to the modern
- just opposite Grazia is Sberna which has one wing with quality maiolica and another with a mass produced warehouse feel
- a bit further South along Via Tiberina is Maioliche Binaglia at N42.98309, E12.41721 which is a small, but authentic studio specializing in traditional Deruta patterns, not so much Belle Donne or Istoriato
- nearly next door from Bianglia sits Ceramiche Marcucci at N42.977311, E12.411793 who sells pretty much anything including some reasonably nice Belle Donne at acceptable prices
- finally, at the Southern end of Via Tiberina you will find yet more shops including Penco (N42.98576, E12.41938) and MOD Maioliche Originali Deruta (N42.97637, E12.40988), the latter being another very large outfit with a lot to pick from
- not at the Via Tiberina, but in the industrial area on the other side of the Perugia highway is Grandi Maioliche Ficola at N42.98561, E12.41628, a huge outlet where you can find erverything imanginable made of maiolica, even large garden furniture.
Around the main square in old Deruta, Piazza dei Consoli, are a mix of makers and resellers of Deruta pottery offering a bewildering variety of ceramics, from top end renaissance replicas down to outright kitsch.
Many maiolica manufacturers in Deruta will also make things to your own designs or sell ensembles of tiles to specifically fit your house and garden. Some Deruta maiolica studios also run shops in nearby tourism magnet Assisi, usually at higher prices to compensate more expensive shop leases.
Bring a lot of time and patience – and money, as Deruta ceramics are by no means cheap – when combing through the wide wide world of Deruta ceramics and do some online research in advance, if you have a reasonably good idea of what you like to buy and do not want to get sidetracked. In any way, this article will have given you a significant edge over other shoppers as you now know what is what around Deruta maiolica and you can navigate your way through the maze a lot more comfortably.
Happy treasure hunting!
*** *** ***
Good to know:
- Car parking, if you want to visit the town center: there are many small parking lots at the edge of the old town from where you can comfortably walk up to the Piazza, for example at (N42.98204, E12.42153)
- Italian opening hours apply i.e there is a “siesta” in the early afternoon; some shops are open Sundays, others are not
- For a good eat have a look at Siro Restaurant in Torgiano, just North of Deruta, or L’Antico Forziere in Casalina to the South