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The town of Grottaglie is located in Apulia, about 20 km from Taranto. It boasts an ancient handicraft tradition thanks to the abundance of clay in the surrounding area. Numerous archaeological findings testify to the local ceramic production since prehistoric times.
Grottaglie clay was considered ductile, high quality, rich in iron and calcium, without impurities of limestone.
Skilled peasants extracted the clay from pits situated in the countryside near the town. Using big half-moon shaped hoes called “musu” , they dug narrow, deep trenches to locate the best layer of clay. Then, they widened the trench by removing the turf, filled buckets with clay clods and took them to the workshops. There, the raw material was purified through a long and hard process carried out by many workers.
Today, Grottaglie is part of the AICC – Italian Association of Cities of Ceramics, a network composed of 36 Italian municipalities standing out for their time-honoured ceramic tradition, established in 1999 under the brand CAT (Artistic Traditional Ceramics).
Grottaglie owes its name to the numerous caves located in the surrounding country, which were inhabited since the High Middle Ages.
These settlements expanded over the centuries until the development of a compact urban centre called Casale Cryptalearum, from which Grottaglie derives its name.
Later the Normans gave the feudal land to the Archbishopric of Taranto. Starting from the XIVth century, the enlightened bishop Giacomo d’Atri had the “Chiesa Matrice” (Mother Church) built over a pre-existing structure. He also commissioned the construction of the defensive walls and the Castle, which stands on the highest rocky ground of the old urban centre.
Centuries of troubled history followed for the town. It found itself at the mercy of both the bishops in Taranto and lay feudal lords, with a double jurisdiction that caused frequent riots. The only lay feudal lords who lived permanently in the town from the mid-seventeenth century were the Cicinelli. These Neapolitan nobles committed themselves exclusively to asserting their cause against the archbishops of Taranto without promoting any benefit for the town. Instead, the monastic orders that settled in different places of the town from the sixteenth century onwards – the Carmelites, the Minims, the Capuchins and the Poor Clares – promoted the construction of churches, convents and congregations. They were significant artistic patrons as well as holders of most of the city’s riches.
During the eighteenth century the strenuous struggle continued between the Cicinelli princes and the archbishops of Taranto. It does not end until the abolition of feudalism and the suppression of religious orders, whose goods were confiscated to fill the coffers of the town.
Then followed the years of Italian unification, which were marked by the advent of brigandage, the exceptional sanctification of the missionary Francesco De Geronimo from Grottaglie, the settlement of a Jesuit community and the creation of a shrine that includes his birthplace.
The establishment of the “Royal School of Ceramic Arts” in 1887, the two world wars and the construction of the military airport will write the contemporary history of Grottaglie.
In Grottaglie, the artisans’ workshops are located at the foot of the Episcopio Castle in the so-called “Ceramics Quarter”or “Li Camennre”. Many of these potteries are situated inside caves dug into the limestone rock. They still have their old handmade kilns, large courtyards, terraces and hanging gardens, irregular floors tiled with “chianche” ( white stone slabs) as well as ancient hypogean mills employed for the processing of clay.
The “Ceramics Quarter” of Grottaglie preserves all the history of local craftsmanship. Today, everything looks just as it did in the past.
Archaeological excavations have returned fragments of vases, tools for smoothing pottery, shards of furnishings and tombs that testify to a long production from the Paleolithic to the Middle Ages. Some of these finds are kept at the current Archaeological Museum of Taranto or at the Ceramics Museum of Grottaglie
From the sixteenth century onward many families of potters have passed down this old craft for generations. In addition, the numerous monastic orders that settled in the town have produced works of particular charm such as holy water fonts, tiled floors painted with vegetal or geometric motifs and the colourful majolica tiles –the “scàndole” – which decorate the majestic dome of the “Mother Church“.
Some typical wares of eighteenth-century production in Grottaglie are“ciarle”: two-handled vases with lids destined to furnish high-class dwellings. Their surface is decorated with finely hand moulded fruits, leaves, angels and human heads as well as with decorations painted in yellow, manganese brown and light blue. Throughout this century, a characteristic feature of manufacture in Grottaglie is a very intense blue tending to purple.
Other creations are anthropomorphic bottles (pupe), holy water fonts reflecting the architectural patterns of baroque altars, and tabernacles featuring Putti, festoons, columns and shells.
Master ceramic artists also produce high quality tureens, plates and crockery of a brilliant white. These pieces, characterised by a fluid design, are covered with a white enamel that enhances their refined lines: the “whites of Grottaglie”.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Grottaglie was the main production centre in the entire “Land of Otranto”. A wide range of kitchenware, including plates, cooking pots and jugs were crafted for everyday use. Jars likecapasoni” and “capase” were the ideal containers to store oil and wine, while vessels of different kinds and sizes were commonly used to hold and carry water.
One third of the local population was employed in pottery making. As a consequence, the production process started to take on the features of a factory rather than those of a mere workshop. The division of labour required a skilled worker for each stage of the processing: the “palazziere”, who manually prepared the clay or “palazza“; the “stompa creta” who made the dough; the “faenzaru“ who shaped the clay on the potter’s wheel; the “caminaru” who fired the items in the kiln and a whole series of workmen and apprentices who crowded into the shops.
At the end of the nineteenth century the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce established an Art School in Grottaglie , in order to improve the local technical production through the theoretical and practical education of future potters. Despite many difficulties, it obtained very prestigious national recognition and helped the local artisan culture to break free of provincialism. Despite many difficulties, it obtained very prestigious national recognition and helped the local artisan culture to break free of provincialism.
In 1910 the Calò factory was founded. In the course of thirty years, it involved great artists in ceramics production, won numerous contests and reached the American market.
Today the production consists mainly of ceramics for the decoration of indoors, outdoors and the table. The preparation of the clay and colours relies on modern technology but some steps still need the master potter’s skill and his long experience.
Since 1971, Grottaglie pottery has been promoted by the annual Ceramics Exhibition, where artists from all over the world express social messages through their works of art.
HOW OUR ARTISTIC CERAMICS ARE MADE
There’s a variety of different techniques for modelling soft clay.
The Potter’s wheel is a rotating disc on which the craftsman throws a clay lump and shapes it with both hands as the wheel rapidly spins around. In this way he makes round ceramic ware, like vessels, lamps and candle holders.
A clay block can be also cut into slabs of uniform thickness using a wire. Then these slabs are rolled out with a rolling pin and bent to make square shaped wall lights and centrepieces.
Hand building is the most ancient method of pottery making. It consists in moulding the clay by hand to create a three-dimensional form like a doll, a horseman or a sea urchin. Then, the craftsman uses wooden ribs and metal tools to work on details.
As soon as they are moulded, clay bodies need to dry in the air to slowly lose their internal moisture content. After a few days, they have a hard and compact consistency, the so called “leather hard” stage. It’s the right moment to carve the surface with a cutter to make lamps, candle holders and wall lights.
THE FIRST FIRING
The firing of raw clay pieces takes place in large kilns that reach very high temperatures. This process can last many hours and the temperature must increase and decrease gradually. After the firing, the piece undergoes a reduction in volume. The result is a red rust coloured product: the “biscuit”. The result is a red rust coloured product: the “biscuit”.
Held by metal tongs, the “biscuit” is dipped into a liquid solution, the glaze, which can be white or coloured. Before the immersion, the ceramic piece must be perfectly clean and free of any dust. Although apparently simple, this procedure requires great skill on the part of the potter in order to let the proper amount of glaze coat all the object’s surface.
The liquid glaze is sprayed on the ceramic body using an airbrush, an aluminum or steel tool equipped with a tank containing the glaze.
The glazed object has to dry for some days. Then the potter decorates its surface using brushes and special ceramic colors. He paints flowers, leaves, animals and landscapes, using different types of brushes to apply the colors in different ways and finish the object.
Once dried, the glaze layer is scratched with a pointed steel tool to create floral or geometric decorations on the object’s surface. hen the potter paints the design areas and lets the piece dry.
This technique is applied to a raw clay body, at the so called “leather hard” stage. The craftsman pierces the clay with a sharp bladed tool, cutting out flowers, leaves or geometric patterns based on large and small circles, diamonds and ellipses. These features allow the light to shine through lamps, wall lights and candle holders.
THE SECOND FIRING
After glazing and decorating, the potter does a second firing to fix the colours and make them bright. This process takes place in a kiln at a temperature between 850°C and 970°C. It is necessary to fix the glaze on the object’s surface, making it hard and waterproof like glass.