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A concrete history: all the faces of the clay in Tuscany (part 1)

“But it is only soil!” don’t tell anyone who works one of the most flexible and versatile material of artistic Tuscan handicraft: the clay

It will be because it is always under our feet and we play even as children. Will that be easy to remove and doesn’t cost much. Will that just a slight pressure of fingers to shape it and, as long as it is “raw”, can be processed into infinity.

But the clay is a valuable ally of fantasy, the faithful companion of novice sculptors and experienced potters.

We do not want to go into technical details here, but explore the differences, similarities and specific characteristics of the main types of artistic ceramic of Tuscany.

1) The glazed earthenware of the Valdichiana = Through a process similar to fossilization, clay dough acquire an extraordinary resistance. Vasari sums up so this particular technique, “a cover of glaze on, made ??with tin, gaiter earth, antimony and others minerals and mixtures, cooked in the fire of a furnace […] made earth works almost eternal. “And he was right talking about eternity: the pottery that we can still admire on historical buildings, arcades and churches have more than 600 years and haven’t been affected by the passing time or the weather.

The story goes that the Della Robbia ones refined the technique and long guarded the alchemy about this mysterious process. Actually it was not all of their invention, it was a long “word of mouth” that reached Europe from the East by the Byzantines, the Romans and Moors. What made these artists so famous is that … they thought and acted as artists. They lifted up a processing linked to tools and functional objects to something more intangible and noble. Something that still translates into expressive search of craftsmen of the Valdichiana.

Since 1700 the local production of pottery was released from practice to devote himself exclusively to ornamental shapes and more sophisticated forms. The samples therefore distinguished by: a decorative style similar to the iconographic tradition of Orvieto and Viterbo (racks, swirls, shapes, patterns, plant and animal representations), a prevalence of naples yellow hue, copper green, brown manganese, fretwork and relief adorned.

2) Impruneta terracotta = The recipe is simple: mix Impruneta clay, water and sand. But the magic occurs after, during the stages of pressing, drying and baking. Just the combination of 4 elements, water, earth, air, fire, to create a complete product: impact and high temperature resistant, frost and thermal shock, salt and chlorine, incombustible, suitable to support large volumetric measures and by the unmistakable color. A red that fades into orange and pink.

Since the Middle Ages the territory of Impruneta witness the specialization in the manufacture of jars without spout, jugs and amphorae to hold vast amounts of oil and wine, roof tiles, bricks, roofing, flooring. The most practiced technique was that “coiling” (overlapping cords of clay) “mold” (the pressing of the clay against the inner wall of the matrix). To date, the Impruneta craftsmanship preserves the aesthetic and functional balance of terracotta artifacts: dells for gardens, planters, lemon pots, ornaments, outdoor stairs, walls and statues.

3) The majolica of Montelupo = This particular type of glazed earthenware represented the status symbol of many noble houses in the Renaissance. Medici, Pucci, Antinori and Strozzi exhibited their opulence through the canteen accessories from Montelupo and blue blood newlyweds adorned the tables with finely historiated dishes. But local potters also supplying apothecaries, the powerful pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella and numerous convents in the Florence area.

The richness of workmanship styles and the artistic choices that distinguish these tiles reside in the geographical location of Montelupo. The proximity of the Via Francigena and of the Pisa harbors in fact fathered a dense network of cultural influences and reworkings of iconographic elements:

– stylized phytomorphic and geometric patterns with their characteristic green and brown color go back to a more archaic stage.

– the Hispano-Moorish tradition impress a most spectacular and colorful ornamental inclination. The green and cobalt on white, peacock feather motifs, arabesques and floral plants, ribbons, palms recalling the Middle East carpets.

– more related to the Italian Renaissance environment are the “grotesque” ornaments: human figures, animals, coats of arms, initials, landscapes placed in focal points (central protrusion and the edges). Colors on surfaces increase and intensify: amber, violet and all shades of blue.

– but it is in 1600 that the ‘”harlequin” subject will mark the successful production of Montelupo. They are caricatures, bizarre masks, popular culture characters which concern allegories and ironic and unconventional interpretations of life.

Many shades, shapes, features, stories and legends: it’s easy to get lost in this maze microcosm of “handmade”. But it’s also a first approach to the fabulous world of Tuscan pottery: you’ll be amazed how many other details will emerge in specific routes. We meet at the next post to continue this journey together.

In the meantime, you can answer to one of our curiosity: What impresses you most in a ceramic? Which genre do you prefer?