Italian handcrafts: The Majolica of Castelli
- WTI Magazine #154 Aug 25, 2022
Until a few decades ago, only a few examples of sixteenth-century Castelli majolica were known to have survived, mainly attributed to the Pompeii family, whose best well-known ceramic artist was Orazio (ca. 1507-1588/9). His house is also well-known, due to the inscription on the lintel of a window: “Haec domus east Oratii figuli 1562” (“This is the home of Orazio the Potter 1562”).
Thanks to archaeological excavations conducted in a small ravine between the house of Orazio Pompeii and a nearby precipice, it has been possible to document a hitherto unknown medieval production of engobed sgraffito ceramics and attribute the production of the prestigious Orsini-Colonna pharmaceutical collection, housed in the British Museum in London, to the craftsmen of Castelli.
It was also possible to attribute Castelli with the creation of sumptuous Farnese tableware, featuring the coat of arms of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in gold and white against a blue background, the largest section of which is exhibited in the Capodimonte Museum.
Some of the most interesting monuments to visit in Castelli are part of its early seventeenth-century production. The most important of these is certainly the rural Church of San Donato, located just above the village and described by Carlo Levi as the “Majolica Sistine Chapel”.
The church’s ceiling, unique in Italy, is composed of about eight hundred majolica tiles, made between 1615 and 1617 by all the inhabitants of Castelli for devotional reasons and with great freedom of inspiration. This monumental ceiling is painted in the “compendiario” style, a decoration with simple motifs on a white background, which became prominent from the second half of the sixteenth century to the first decades of the seventeenth century as a reaction to the bright tones of the Renaissance.
However, Castelli owes its fame to its Baroque productions, which elevated it to the pinnacle of global majolica production from the mid-seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century. Towards the end of the first half of the seventeenth century, the potters of Castelli revived a method of painting majolica that had already been in vogue in the sixteenth century under the name “istoriato”, consisting in decorating pottery with scenes from the Bible or mythology, hunting scenes or landscapes.
The style uses the subdued and charming shades of the Castelli palette, composed of five colours (yellow, orange, blue, green and manganese brown), and is known by the name “Istoriato Castellano”. In addition to the high quality artefacts produced in Castelli, there has always been a production of ordinary pottery for everyday use, which was sold mainly at fairs and markets.
By the end of the 18th century, Castelli’s ordinary majolica production had lost the competitiveness and popularity that had characterised it during the previous two centuries. There was a gradual decline in the quality of the work, which became almost entirely limited to ordinary majolica objects for common use, while porcelain and industrial pottery were increasingly conquering the markets.
This was the situation throughout most of the nineteenth century, and efforts were eventually made to address it through improved training for the workers and a request for the establishment of vocational schools to provide the technical and cultural basis for the re-conquest of the markets and revival of the sector. The foundation of the Institute of Ceramic Art at the beginning of the twentieth century played a decisive role in the recovery of ceramic craft production, with a revival of artistic and economic activities.
In 1964, when craft production in Castelli was experiencing one of its most difficult periods, the Castalli Ceramics Centre was formed for the purpose of providing technical, artistic and commercial assistance to craft businesses. The Centre established a “Craft Village” in the early 1970s.This led to a complete transformation of the productive set up, with the transfer to the “Village” of almost all the old shops in the historic centre, which were upgraded with the creation of rational work spaces and provided with advanced equipment, often designed and built with the participation of local craftsmen.
This substantial organisational innovation was accompanied by a profound technological transformation, with the abandonment of production steps involving the preparation of the clay, colours and glazes, which were now available on the market in a ready-to-use form, and of the glorious wood-fired breathing kiln, invented in Castelli, which was replaced with electric or gas kilns of various sizes.
In addition, quality training was also provided for the new generations, allowing the tradition to remain alive and keep step with developments in style, ensuring the introduction of innovative products. These initiatives are still providing a positive response to the demands of domestic and international markets and attracting an ever-increasing flow of tourists.
The local area
Castelli is a small town in Abruzzo of about 1,500 inhabitants, located five hundred metres above sea level and fifty kilometres from the sea, inside the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park. Its name is due to its appearance to approaching visitors: a handful of houses perched at the top of a rocky spur about a hundred metres above the confluence of the Rio and Leomogna streams.
It is a genuine “castle”, inaccessible on three sides and with the portion attached to the mountain occupying an ideal defensive position. It is the centre of a mighty amphitheatre of mountains set apart from the peaks of the Gran Sasso, with a landscape of hills gently descending towards the sea as a backdrop. The town is dominated by the rocky walls of Monte Camicia, which plummet almost a thousand metres to the Fondo della Salsa, Europe’s lowest perennial snowfield.
Castelli is the smallest of Italy’s thirty-six historic ceramic centres, which are recognised and protected by a special law. It has survived for five centuries exclusively through majolica and was renowned for its work from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, which was at the pinnacle of global production.
By Camera di Commercio di Teramo with Unioncamere