Crazy about Ceramics: Vietri Sul Mare
Few landscapes embody the ‘Italian dream’ of pastel colored villages nestled between lush hills and turquoise waters more than the pearls of the Amalfi coast between Positano and Salerno. Yet, as picture book perfect as fabled Positano, Amalfi or Ravello may look and even feel, gearing everything and all to tourism for the past two hundred years have turned bubbly fishing towns into something of an overstyled Italian Disneyland. But there is hope for weary travelers seeking joy in authenticity. Skip Positano, ignore Amalfi and rush through Cetara to land in Vietri sul Mare at the nexus between Amalfi Coast and Bay of Salerno to find a soothing balance of reasonably handsome beach town and rough Campanian neighborhood. Vietri is the kind of place where you are greeted by the grand, futile gestures of a lone policeman battling traffic chaos, where fishermen selling their overnight haul in tiny pescherias still rule the tangled streets and a few dozen families continue the ancient pottery traditions which has given this very lived-in town its own humble measure of fame.
Short history of pottery in Vietri
Just how ancient the Vietri pottery industry is, seems to be a matter of opinion. You will hear anything from the time of the Etruscans (who had their most Southerly outposts in the larger Vietri area up to the mid 4th century BC – incidentally down to the river Sele beyond which the Greeks had established their famous colony of Poseidonia/Paestum) to the Renaissance in the outgoing 15th century, a range of nearly 2000 years. Some sources mention the 9th century, when Salerno was an independent Lombard principality (Langobardia minor), as the onset of documented production and export of vases and tableware from the Amalfi and Salerno regions (including Vietri) to Taranto in the South. Others suggest the 11th century, when Vietri was part of a network of ceramics manufacturing in the areas of Nocera, Cava de’ Tirreni and Salerno having been acquired by the Benedictine abbey of Trinità della Cava (near Cava de’ Tirreni) as its port. We can imagine Vietri as a kind of industrial suburb of Cava with ample supply of firewood (for kilns), a creek to power mills for processing of clay and grinding of pigments and a port from which production could be easily shipped.
While the beginnings of Vietri’s ceramics tradition remain in the dark, there is consensus that by the end of the 15th century several master potters had set up workshops in Vietri and that Sanseverino princes (who had descended from the 11th century Norman conquerors of the Salerno principality) played a major role in setting up the first factories actually located in Vietri. Over the 16th and 17th centuries Vietri developed into a noted center of ceramic craftsmanship with a reliable customer base among the nobility of Naples. Vietri’s trademark products at that time were riggiole (tiles) dominated by religious themes including votive tiles and the large tiled murals depicting biblical scenes or religious personalities which are still present in many churches along the Amalfi coast.
In the 17th century the variety of artefacts produced in Vietri was extended beyond riggiole when potters from the Abruzzi region of Italy settled in Vietri and brought with them production of tableware, fonts and edicole, the miniature votive shrines typical for Amalfi coast towns and across Italy.
The first wave of industralization in the 19th century pushed cheaper, mass-produced industrial ceramics onto the market making it generally harder for the artisans of Vietri to compete. In addition, Italian unification (risorgimento) 1860-71, abruptly abolished tariff protection and uprooted the feudal system of land ownership in Italy’s South (aristocrats, church bodies and the king owned and managed most) without creating a viable new class of free peasants able to live off the land. This lead to mass emigration and diminished purchasing power, setting off a deep economic crisis with also engulfed Vietri.
The gradual decline of Vietri was halted when central European (mostly German, but also Dutch and Polish) artists started to take an interest in the artistic traditions, pleasant lifestyle and (back then) low cost of living of the Amalfi coast. Between 1900 (some say 1920) and 1947, the “German period” of Vietri ceramics art, the palette of artistic expression was extended beyond the religious focus and traditional profane themes such as flowers and fruit. It gave birth to some of today’s most loved motifs like the quite unique ciucciariello pack or cart pulling donkeys, naive depictions of everyday life and marine themes such as fishermen, their boats, and the sea creatures of the Amalfi coast. Invention of new themes went hand in hand with one of the Germans’ technical innovations, the creation of the bright “Vietri yellow”pigment. Key artists during this time were Richard Dölker (who in 1923 thought up the donkey, inspired by the pack donkeys of Sardinia where he had traveled), Irene Kowaliska (from Poland via Vienna, check out this cute video, unfortunately in Italian with Polish subtitles but presenting some beautiful pieces of art) famous for her touching mother-child themes and generally for her tender and loving style, and the ethereal (yet influential) creations of Margarete Thewalt-Hannasch who worked on Madonnas and nativity scenes. Noteworthy is also the commercial role of German industrialists in Vietri including ceramicist Günther Stüdemann who founded Ceramica Fontana Limite in 1924 (but closed it to leave Italy in 1929) and the more well-known Max Melamerson who ran Industria Ceramica Salernitana between 1927 and the early 1940s when he was interned for being Jewish. Their entrepreneurship and their showcase artists like Irene Kowaliska who represented Vietri during industry fares in Italy and around the world turned Vietri ceramics into a global brand and underpinned its revival.
If you want to learn more about the history of ceramics in Vietri, visit the Museum of Vietri Ceramics at Villa Guariglia in the Raito suburb of Vietri (park at the road near the entrance N 40.66985, E 14.71848 or if you are a bit sporty walk there from Vietri’s town center). For the very interested, there is apparently some kind of an academic book on the subject (Donatone V., La ceramica di Vietri sul mare, dalle origini all’Ottocento, Napoli 1991) which I could, however, not even find on Google books.
Today, Vietri relies mostly on the production of fancy tableware and the deco pieces popular with tourists. Riggiole tiles (including complex murals) are also still in fashion with Italian clients for the floor or wall at home. They are usually made to order from catalogs.
What’s special about Vietri ceramics?
Vietri ceramics are mostly of maiolica type i.e a terracotta (“earthenware”) core is covered with a whitish tin-based coating (“tin-glazed”) which, unfired (not heated), remains a highly absorbent “canvas” onto which artists can brush their motifs using a wide palette of metallic oxide pigments such as the traditional green/turquoise (copper) and purple/brown (manganese), but also blue (cobalt), orange/red (iron), and yellow (antimony). The correspondence of oxide type and color are not at all exact as small variations to the composition or processing of the pigment can completely change their later appearance. Like with frescoes the absorbent substrate is unforgiving i.e mistakes cannot be corrected, but it also gives the colors their brilliance and durability. Maiolica is fired in the kiln mostly only once, sometimes twice for an added layer of gloss or thrice to produce so-called lusterware.
There are several stories surrounding the root of the word maiolica, the most convincing of which involves the Spanish island of Mallorca (or Majorca) through which in the 15th century the first maiolica wares reached Italy from Spain where the technique had apparently been picked up from the Morisco population of Valencia. Some of those Morisco ceramicists eventually moved to Italy and established the trade there. The first major centers of production were located in central Italy, places like Florence, later closeby Montelupo, Siena and Faenza, extending later to Arezzo and Orvieto and reaching Vietri during the 16th century.
The fame of today’s Vietri ceramics still draws on the brilliant colors – made possible through the maiolica technique – which capture the glorious radiance of the Amalfi coast and transport a little of it into people’s homes. Another selling point is the high quality of the the glossy finish, the varnish of the objects, which is particularly impressive on the ceramic fruit replicas. The story goes that the composition / formula of the varnish is a tightly guarded secret passed from generation to generation among the forty or so family businesses and handful of larger manufacturers in operation in the area.
Last but not least, if we learn anything from the evolution of Vietri ceramics then that it has been super diverse. Many influences and ideas have over centuries created an immensely rich repertoire of motifs and artifacts. It is difficult to not find something nice when strolling through the streets and shops of Vietri.
How to Buy
Traditional Vietri motifs include, for example, scenes from shepherd and peasant life, country landscapes and religious themes, all of which are generic Italian, plus Amalfi coast themes related to sun, beach and ocean and its opulent vegetation including the iconic lemons.
There are a lot of practical items to be found, too, including garden furniture (benches and tables), small sinks for guest bathrooms, all kinds of lamps, of course a huge variety of crockery for dining and even flower pots, mostly the longish ones for balconies and verandahs. In my opinion the latter two, i.e. crockery and flower pots are too busy in terms of colors and pattern. After all, you probably want the food or your plants to be in focus, not the extravagant decoration of plates or pots.
Purely decorative items include large wall plates, vases of all shapes and sizes, amazingly realistic ceramic fruit for kitchen walls or shelves and even motifs inspired by Roman antiquity such as the wild looking face of bacchus-dionysus (god of wine and fertility) with hair of grapes and lemons. The typical puffer fish, starfish and similar marine-inspired pieces are also present in Vietri, although I find their variety and quality to be a better in the Positano area. Surprisingly, Positano also has a better selection of Vietri donkeys than Vietri itself.
Whatever you may buy, my advice is that it should not be too small. The magic of Vietri colors unfolds only beyond a certain size – plus I find the many mini items on display usually overpriced.
Talking of which: items usually carry little price labels which does not mean that you cannot bargain, especially if you buy several or large and expensive pieces. Although tax evasion i.e. paying cash and not getting an invoice is not as rife in Italy as it has been a few years back, you will still be offered such deals which are, well, also tax evasions on your part, if you agree to them. Theoretically the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian tax police, can stop you in the street, check whatever you seem to have just bought and ask for the invoice. If you cannot produce it, you may get charged. In practice, I have never seen this happen neither in Vietri nor anywhere else in Italy.
There are dozens of ceramics shops in Vietri (with some manufacturers running more than one outlet), most of them so stuffed with items that you can easily feel overwhelmed to dazed. The variation in prices is not huge and the handful of stores at the beginning of the Corso Umberto (opposite the car park) is usually no more expensive than the shops further along the Corso and in the side alleys. In terms of quality, those first couple of shops are probably a little better than the rest. There are by the way more shops on the way to neighboring Cava and also along the Amalfi coast road to Positano.
When buying an item
- check for damage, including pieces of varnish that have come off
- check the back for a factory stamp which confirms its origin (Italy/Vietri)
- take your time to check details, for example, whether you like the facial expression of something that has a face, or how much work has gone into details like shadows and gradations
- avoid items that look too perfect as they may well come from factories in Asia (which is also why shop keepers will usually not allow photos, for fear of product piracy)
- imagine the place where you would like to put it at home to avoid disappointment
- do not be stingy; buy what you really like and not for the sake of a seemingly good price
Shops in Italy sometimes show hours of business, but even then they are often not strictly kept. During high season June to August you can expect shops to be continuously open 10:00 to 19:30, also on Sundays. During off-peak season Italian siesta is held at some places, meaning some shops close between 13:00 and 16:00 while others remain open all day.
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Good to know:
- Car parking: the small lot at the main square is often full and expensive (N40.67299, E14.72795); across the bridge, a ten minute walk away you can park for free, with a little luck (N40.67382, E14.72448)
- Timing: plan for half a day or two times 2 to 3 hours
- Other things to do: Vietri still has a small fishing industry – you can watch the boats leave port in the evenings – so try some of Vietri’s restaurants or – better – get some fresh fish (buy before 13:00) and prepare it at home