I have to admit that I’m not really that into ceramics. Or, to be more exact, I should say that I’m not really that into collecting anything, be it ceramics or stamps or dolls or diamonds (though, if a collection of diamonds is offered to me, I might be tempted). I don’t like to own anything that could take more than 37 seconds to pack and move. I’ve always been kind of a gypsy in that way, inhabiting my houses more like dormitories and not becoming much attached to anything in them. There’s nothing like growing up with divorced parents and then moving yourself overseas to crush the collecting habit right out of you.
However, when you live in Umbria you start to pick up a little appreciation for majolica despite yourself. One on the quintessential crafts of the region, exquisite hand-painted ceramics have been Umbria’s most recognizable artform and biggest artistic export for the past 500 years. Deruta is the town which first comes to mind–and certainly by sheer output is the epicenter of the region’s production—but the lesser-known majolica produced in austere, dramatic Gubbio to the north is both breathtaking and couched in colorful characters.
Gubbio’s artistic ceramic production had its salad days in the 1500s under the direction of Mastro Giorgio Andreoli, who was born near Lake Maggiore but moved to Gubbio around 1490. As the director of the city’s most active majolica workshop, his development of the lusterware technique—which involves a third firing (most ceramics are fired twice) with a metallic glaze that renders the final colors iridescent because of the metal oxides in the final overglaze finish—made him one of the most sought-after ceramic artists in the Renaissance, both by noble clients and by other workshops, who often hired him to embellish their own wares (Which he would then sign himself. He was, apparently, the Oscar de la Renta of the 16th century.). The fame his trademark golden and ruby glaze brought him was such that the Duke of Urbino granted him citizenship and exempted him from paying taxes, an exemption then renewed by the Pope Leo X himself.
Sadly, all good things must end and end they did when Mastro Giorgio died in 1555, taking with him to the grave the secret of his trademark lustro. That said, artists in the late 1800s were able to reconstruct–at least in part–the technique, and ceramic arteliers in the center of Gubbio still offer pieces decorated by this rich red and gold design. To see a few original works by Mastro Giorgio, you can stop by the Museo Civico in the Palazzo di Consoli, where a few works were acquired through funds donated by the town’s citizens over the past decades, or the small private museum in the Torre di Porta Romana, which also displays a small number of original pieces.
Though the original recipe for lustro may have been lost, the oversized personalities behind Gubbio’s ceramic production continue, embodied in local ceramic artist and sculptor Leo Grilli. It’s hard to miss the name, as it adorns a number of ceramic shops and display windows along Gubbio’s main Corso. What caught my eye, however, was a series of stills from the now-defunct Italian variety show Scommettiamo Che…(“Let’s bet…”), in which apparently Leo bet that he could throw a pot on a vertical wheel attached to the hub of a moving Fiat 500 whilst strapped lying down just inches away from the asphalt to the side of the car. There’s a before and an after picture. Looks like Leo managed to win his bet. That’s my kind of guy.
Though the maestro has now passed his workshop to his daughter, Claudia, he still holds court in his shop most days and is happy to hold forth on his glory years (he began producing in the 1950s and his fame reached its height in the 1980s), his workshops for aspiring ceramic artists held at the University of Pennsylvania, and pretty much anything you throw his way. His shop is crammed from ceiling to floor with decades of majolica in anything from the traditional lusterware to funky contemporary styles.
As I said, I’m not much of a collector, but if I could get my hands on the vase thrown by Leo Grilli on the wheel of a Cinquecento, I might just change my mind.Rebecca