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Potter at work, Deruta
from Linda Prospero

Hand painting pottery, Deruta
from Linda Prospero

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Pottery display, Deruta
from Linda Prospero

See also:
A Brief History of the
Art of Majolica

Deruta - A mecca for Italian pottery lovers
by Linda Prospero
Crazy for hand-painted Italian ceramics? Stop and do not pass go when you reach Deruta, a town in Central Italy that is nirvana for maiolica lovers.

Maiolica (also known as "majolica"), the name given to the style of tin-glazed, decorated pottery that reached an apex in Renaissance Italy, still is produced in many Italian towns, including Faenza, Orvieto, Castelli, and Sicily’s Caltagirone. But true maiolica devotees ultimately seek out Deruta, a town in Central Italy where 250 factories still produce the colorful wares.

Located about 19 kilometers (12 miles) south of Perugia in the region of Umbria, Deruta would be just another hill town boasting a handful of master artworks were it not for its reputation as ceramics central.

Ceramic-making traditions from the Middle East migrated to Moorish Spain by the end of the 11th century.  The tradition found its way to Italy through pottery that was shipped there from Majorca, the Spanish Island that maiolica takes its name from.  Deruta’s first documentation of the art form showed up as barter in the late 1200s, with items used in daily life such as jugs, bowls and basins. By the 1500s, Deruta’s highly decorated maiolica became renowned for its beauty and dispersed throughout Europe.

Ceramics are still the town’s calling card, and like myself, visitors come to browse and buy in the dozens of small shops tucked along the cobble-stoned streets in the upper part of Deruta, or the array of larger-scale factories lining Via Tiburina at the foot of town.

For those whose interest in maiolica reaches beyond shopping, Deruta has a regional museum of ceramics and even a school where amateurs or professionals can learn or perfect the centuries-old craft.

Deruta’s sights, including an art museum and the Romanesque-Gothic church of San Francesco with 14th century frescoes, can be easily covered in one day. Visitors might find Perugia a better choice for lodging, since it offers more hotels, restaurants and museums.

Artisans in Deruta still apply age-old techniques to produce the ceramics, from throwing local clay on a potter’s wheel to meticulous hand painting using time-honored, as well as more modern designs.

Giuliano Cerini is one of three potters who creates bowls, vases and other items for ceramics manufacturer Sambuco, a family-owned business since the 1950s in lower Deruta. As I watch him for only fifteen minutes, the expert potter coaxes hard lumps of gray-colored clay into five different shapes, from bowls to large bottles to vases.

Cerini slices a wire through the middle of a perfectly formed but still-wet vase to demonstrate the consistent thickness of his handiwork, a skill achieved after years of trial and error, he said.  Like many artisans in Deruta, Cerini learned his craft as a young boy, later taking formal lessons from a master.

After two to three days of air-drying, the pottery is cleaned and sanded of small imperfections or bumps before the first baking in a kiln at nearly 1000 degrees centigrade. The object is then dipped into a pale-colored glaze, typically white or cream, that serves as an opaque base before decoration is applied with mineral paints.

Before the designs can be painted onto the pottery, however, artists use a paper pattern to transfer a design onto it, tapping carefully with carbon sticks through holes pierced on the paper.  Some of the designs are hundreds of years old, including the Raffaelesco pattern, which features a stylized dragon as a central motif amid swirling curlicues and flowers.  The Arabesco pattern highlights a bird and abstract flowers and foliage reminiscent of patterns found in Arabic art.

For more modern designs, artisans rely on their experience and creativity to turn out flowers or animals freehand.

The pottery is given a second firing at about 950 degrees centigrade, and a third firing at about 650 degrees is required for pieces painted with gold or other metallic colors.

Small items like a mug or an ashtray can be bought for less than $20.00, while large ceramic-covered tables with elaborate hand-painted designs and wrought-iron legs can cost $1000 or more. Back in the U.S., the items would easily be double the cost. Most shops will ship your purchases home for a fee, well worth it if buying a large quantity.  Shipping is reliable and usually arrives less than a week after purchase if items are in stock.

Aside from Sambuco, other ceramics shops worth checking out also on Via Tiburina include: Maioliche Originali Deruta, a brother and sister-run company with large production facilities; Ubaldo Grazia, a family-owned business that has been producing ceramics in Deruta since the 1500s; and Deruta Placens, located in the old town at Via B. Michelotti and Via Umberto I.