You know that feeling when you finally notice something that you’ve been looking at or seeing for years and years and you realize that it is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? It’s kind of a cliché, but why is it? Why did it take you all that time to notice it?
That’s how I feel about Italian ceramics. I grew up with pieces at home and seeing them at them at all of my relatives homes in Italy and the US. I passed by countless shops in and around Napoli and it was just something familiar and passé, souvenirs hocked to the tourists.
This past year, it suddenly hit me how beautiful they are. Travelling to Venice to visit my in-laws, I noticed ceramics in their homes too, all these plates and jugs and bowls full of colours and patterns that seem to have absorbed all of that Mediterranean sun and gleam it back out inside the home.
What was wrong with me all these years? These are the most beautiful things in the world and I want to cradle them like babies. Lots of places sell cheaper pieces like souvenirs, which are still incredibly beautiful in my opinion, and I’ve found lots of them in the charity shop for a pound or two.
But it made me wonder, being blind to these beautiful things surrounding me all these years, why were ceramics so popular in Italy? Why did they start making them?
The Italian pottery that we see all over Italy is called maoilica, a tin-glazed earthenware that makes the pottery gleam with colours that never fade. This type of pottery making originated in Mespotamia during the 9th century and the process travelled along the major trade routes. It made its way to Italy via Spain (specifically via Majorca hence the word maoilica) during the 12th century.
During the Renaissance improvements were made to the kilns and glazing process. New colours, in addition to the original purple and green, like orange, blue and yellow were used and the hand-painted pottery was elevated to an art form. The noble, wealthy families commissioned these pieces. Jugs, dinner plates, platters, vases, and tiles were all put into use and on display. The decorative patterns and colours taken from the Islamic and Spanish pottery soon turned into an Italian style of using mythical and biblical narratives and figures with ornate and colourful decorative patters against a gleaming white background.
And the noble families even changed their eating habits because of the maoilica craze. Where before they engaged in family style eating, all eating off of the same platter, meals began to be served on beautiful individual plates.
I’ve only touched on the top layer of the history of pottery in Italy and I haven’t even mentioned the towns throughout Italy that were famous for making these these works — Deruta in Umbria, Montelupo in Tuscany, Vietri in Campania, Grottaglia in Puglia, and Monreale in Sicily. There is so much more to read and learn about and I’m only getting started. I know that following the history of these works also entails following the development of Italy as a country. From looking at one beautiful object, I can uncover a whole story and as well as the history of the development of Italy as a country. It’s incredible.
If you can’t make a trip to Italy right away, there are lots of places to buy maoilica online.