Watching any portion of production, even if you've read about it extensively or seen it before, is always a head-shaking experience. The craftsmanship, the techniques, and emotional intensity invested in this ancient multi-stage production process thrills and boggles the mind.
During the 13th century, the Italians conducted their own process exploration. At that time, Spanish tin glazeware made its way to Italian shores via Italy's trade with the Spanish on the Isle of Majorca. When the Italians adopted, refined, and made the technique their own, they named it majolica, mistakenly assuming this unfamiliar process had originated on the Isle of Majorca, when actually it was already three millennia old, developed by the Assyrians, and further adapted by the Persians and Egyptians.
The town of Deruta (province of Perugia, region of Umbria) made ceramic production central to its economy - to the extent that by the end of the 13th century, Deruta's production allowed it to pay its taxes to Perugia in vases instead of cash. Today, Deruta is likely the most famous of AICC cities with some 250 active ceramic production firms or shops. So, while production of pottery can and does vary from region to region and even among producers in the same town, as we discuss stages of the process, let's imagine ourselves in Deruta.
- Your knowledge of specialized clay working techniques will deepen watching IL TORNIANTE (The Potter) up to his elbows in clay at a wheel pulling up pitchers, bowls, vases and other articles in rounded or cylindrical shape. Other craftsmen create flat forms like plates and platters using molds or casts into which they press the clay by hand. That's done for uniformity so plates can be "stacked" without wobbling when finished. Once shaped into their final forms, all pieces are left in open air to dry naturally anywhere from one week to 20 days in preparation for LA PRIMA COTTURA (The First Firing). Depending on the company producing the pottery (and their willingness to divulge the information!), approximate firing temperatures range between 1400 to 1850 degrees Fahrenheit. After two days of firing and cooling, the unfinished clay pieces are referred to as bisque or biscotto.
- If you get to see the bisque dipping stage, LA SMALTATURA (The Glazing), you'll witness the pieces grasped with tongs and dunked into a fast-drying white glaze that will serve as backdrop for the design. (Called a bath or vat, the white glaze stirring process makes me think more of a cauldron's brew.) Each Italian producer of majolica pottery guards the chemical formulation of this bath like treasure because it is the quality catalyst for color tones, glazing texture and uniformity during the next firing.
- After the white underglaze dries for about 24 hours, we come to LA PITTURA (The Painting), the exacting, meticulous decoration of the piece. Here you may see totally freehand painting or learn about a stencil method called pouncing or spolvero. (Michelangelo employed this same process for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His full-scale line drawing on paper was punched with holes, held against the ceiling and padded with a powder-filled sack, leaving faint design lines for the painting of his masterpiece.) The pouncing sack used on the pottery underglaze is filled with a fine carbon powder that disappears during firing. The lines have a two-fold purpose. They prevent the colors from bumping and blurring into each other, and they give an outline to the artist of the basic design, assuring continuity to patterns and simultaneously laying the foundation for the artist's hand painting. Do not be alarmed or disappointed at the thought of a "pattern." This is no paint-by-numbers process. The painters must command a huge understanding of the complexities of the coloration because the "colors" they apply at this stage are all gray-to-black tones, dull and pasty against the white underglaze. The artist's work springs to life only during the second firing (discussed below) as the catalyzing heat transforms these grays and blacks into brilliant colors.
- In order for those gem-like colors to emerge, two things must happen once the pieces are entirely decorated. First they are prepared for firing with an application of a Crystalline coating which will add brilliance to the glaze and give the color staying power for daily use. Then LA SECONDA COTTURA (The Second Firing) occurs. As with the first firing, temperatures vary depending on the producer and range somewhere between 1400 to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a precarious stage. The pieces cannot be touched in any way before firing, lest a brush stroke be obliterated and a piece ruined. Kiln temperature control is an art in itself. Ramping up the heat, holding it at a constant high temperature, and bringing it down slowly enough can take up to 24 hours. Temperature control alone is literally responsible for the survival of an entire kiln load of 100+ pieces.