Sicily is an important centre of Italian maiolica, much of it made in the old town of Caltagirone. The Arabs brought glazed pottery to Sicily and the town’s name is said to come from the Arabic qal’at-al-jarar, meaning “castle of jars.” As maiolica is so normal in Italy, it’s hardly ever called that, just ceramiche artistiche, art pottery, to distinguish it from wall and floor tiles. Unfortunately nearly all the art pottery I saw during a recent trip to Sicily was dreadful, the ideas conservative, the shapes derivative and the decoration weak. The shop in Taormina, pictured below left, gives a good idea of what you’ll find.
It’s artisan production, but the Italian word artigianale doesn’t mean the same as “craft” does here. We invented craft in the 19th century as a conscious revival of old ways of making in reaction to mass-production. Italy, which industrialised later, retained more artisan trades. One of the joys of visiting the country is the small workshops in city centres, doing things ranging from gilding picture-frames to mending cars. Artisan manufacture is such a significant part of the Italian economy that the chambers of commerce are chambers of “commerce, industry artigianato and agriculture”. The huge International Handicrafts Trade Fair in Florence doesn’t make our distinction between craft and manufacture, which means that in Italy a craft like art pottery may well be mass-produced by hand.
Eventually I found two pieces of pottery that I liked. One was a pair of ceramic heads (top picture) made by Renata Emmolo in Syracuse; the other was a tile (below) made in Giacaomo Alessi’s workshop in Caltagirone.
The ceramic heads are ubiquitous and nearly every home, shop and restaurant in Sicily has them. They represent the story of a Sicilian girl who cut off the head of her perfidious Moorish lover. They’re usually garishly painted and many are made in moulds. Renata Emmolo’s are modelled by hand, and I liked her additions of grapes and loquats – the fruit they call nespole in Italy. I think these heads look better left unpainted.
Giacomo Alessi is influenced by medieval ceramics and uses a limited range of colours on a cream-coloured glaze. “I didn’t have any instructors,” he says. “I learned by myself and my independence allowed me to look ‘beyond’. I love tradition but I’m not traditional. I translate tradition into something new. I searched, gathered and re-invented the Baroque heritage in my own way. It makes my fantasy fly until everything becomes movement, human and animal spirit”.
In the end I never got to Caltagirone, although it’s only an hour by car from Catania. In a two-week trip visiting Syracuse, Noto, Agrigento, Piazza Armerina, Taormina and Catania on Sicily’s fragmented, confusing and sometimes unreliable public transport, we just couldn’t get there.
Caltagirone shop, Via Principe Amedeo, 9. Tel +39 0933 21964
Caltagirone factory, Via F.sco Schiciano, 10-12. Tel +39 0933 31694
Agira EN: Sicilia Fashion Village. Tel +39 0935 594265
Catania airport, Departure Lounge. Tel +39 095 7232084
Catania: Vechhia Dogana (Old Customs House), Via Dusmet, Catania Port. Tel +39 095 532056