Italian handcrafts: Ceramics in Messina
- WTI Magazine #116 Jun 15, 2019
Traces of historical kilns and various examples of archival evidence suggest that activities related to ceramics have taken place in Messina since the Arabic period. The first ceramic findings date back to the discovery of the old municipal cemetery (1878-1880), which represents the most authentic expression of the creativity of the craftsmen from Santo Stefano di Camastra.
The ceramic coverings found on the tombs constitute the largest collection of majolica flooring. The reconstruction of the city, which took place in 1682, strongly boosted the production of brickwork (bricks and tiles), which benefited from the built-up area being moved further downstream, where there were pits with finer clay.
For several centuries, the ceramics activities were limited to the production of objects for domestic use, such as dishes and containers for oil and water. Traditionally, the “stazzunara” (potters) from Santo Stefano di Camastra were excellent at turning, but as they had never glazed the terracotta they did not know the techniques for creating colours, and they were therefore assisted by expert master ceramicists.
In the eighteenth century, when the terracotta began to be glazed, the fictile art of Santo Stefano di Camastra took a great leap forward in terms of quality, allowing it to compete with that of Caltagirone, Palermo, Trapani and Naples. The techniques for producing the glaze and the colours were then learned by master ceramicists coming from Naples.
During this period, the activities began to shift towards the production of artistic ceramics, used to decorate the interiors and exteriors of aristocratic palaces. Typical objects included very tall candlesticks, vases with a human head that adorned balconies, large clay lions placed on the outer corners of houses and rough terracotta figurines.
In addition to the plates painted with flower and fruit patterns in dazzling colours, another historical artefact of high artistic value worthy of note is the “alborello”: an elongated cylindrical apothecary jar used to store spices. Today, the ceramics of S. Stefano, which now also have a well-deserved reputation abroad, can boast of a repertoire rich in forms, shapes and colours.
The vivacity of the colours and the typical decorative patterns used make the ceramics easily recognisable, establishing a strong connection between the objects and the area from which they originate. A localised brand is developing around the ceramics as a sign of their origin, which has been formally recognised in Santo Stefano di Camastra, where the designation of origin for the “Artistic and Traditional Ceramics Santo Stefano di Camastra” has been established.
Some of the best producers have joined forces to form a consortium (the Network of Artisanal Workshops), which has developed product specifications to add value to the processes that adhere to high standards, with the aim of attaining a high-end position in the market and reach levels of genuine excellence.
All the stages of production must take place within the shop, workshop or lab of the ceramic manufacturer listed on the register, but the use of semi-finished products (bisque) made within the country is permitted, provided it has the same characteristics as the majolica clay extracted in the basins of the Santo Stefano area, if it is not available locally. It is permitted to work with the third-firing (or small fire) technique for majolica with decorative patterns consistent with the ceramic style found in Santo Stefano.
Production of the decorative patterns that belong to the style and designs of the Santo Stefano ceramics tradition is not permitted using serial processes such as decal, serigraphs and anything else not carried out with manual techniques.
The clays specified by the guidelines for the production of artistic and traditional ceramics must be taken from the basins in the Santo Stefano territory, in order to defend and preserve the technical, production, structural and morphological characteristics of the ceramic products.
The use of clays from other regions in Italy is permitted provided that their chemical and physical properties and the technological characteristics of the finished product retain all the special features of the product types made locally.
Red clays must be used in the production of the traditional type of ceramics (majolica). Red clays can only be combined with white earthenware for particular slip-casting methods, and this is so that the specific character of the Santo Stefano majolica is protected.
The Local Area
Santo Stefano di Camastra is a municipality of around 4500 inhabitants, located in the province of Messina and is famous for the artistic majolica and terracotta produced there using traditional patterns and colours, such as copper green, honey yellow, red, cobalt blue and white.
There are currently 51 workshops in the town, and they work according to high standards of quality regulated by production specifications approved in 2002. Also present in the area are important bodies for the preservation and promotion of traditional ceramic production methods, such as the ceramic art institute and the museum set up in the school premises.
Camera di Commercio di Messina