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A symbol of nobility and transcendence, the colour blue has been extracted from a plant that grew lush in the entire upper Tiber valley for centuries: the woad, common name of Isatis tinctoria, has decreed the fortune not only of numerous cities.

In the Middle Ages, the main economic activity, apart from agriculture, was the textile industry. The weavers and merchants’ shops occupied the squares and the central streets of the cities.

THE ETERNAL PLEASURE OF FABRICS

The citizens’ statutes attested the quantitative and qualitative dimension of a branched sub-sector that moved from the popular neighbourhoods where the most polluting activities took place, to the central areas dominated by the sale of finished items. The fabric marketing at markets and fairs generated huge fortunes, and a great part of the population, including the humble sectors, were employed in a variety of jobs ranging from the initial preparation of raw materials (wool, cotton, silk, linen) to the weaving operations at the looms, without forgetting the equally fundamental fulling and colouring of the fabrics. Even if the authorities, in the name of a Christian poverty, sought (in vain) to limit the manifestations of luxury and ostentation, the eternal pleasure for textiles has led to fuelling mass consumerism and fashion.

TECHNICAL MASTERPIECES

But the fabrics, considered for what they really are, a material, are also an ideal point of observation to follow the prevailing cultural trends in society. Consider the importance assigned to fabrics in works of art. Each picture, each fresco, each painting, in fact, is like a window through which the history of fabrics, clothes and colours can be observed with the garments worn by people as well as an infinite quantity of furnishing textiles and everyday use. In this way, pictorial representations help us trace, albeit indirectly, the wealth of forms and techniques that marked the evolution of the textile industry that had to, long before the chemical products arrived, look for a solution in nature to find the pigments to obtain the desired colours. Except for white, the starting point, all the rest, had to be invented and prepared with great care.

THE PREPARATION OF THE BLUE GOLD

To obtain the refined blue, nothing was better than using the woad plant, the Isatis tinctoria, an Asian vegetable species used in Europe since remote times. Galen and Pliny wrote about the colouring properties of the woad on wool. Over the centuries, the woad became essential to the textile industry and botanical treaties provided detailed information on plant cultivation and on the procedures to follow to reach the precious “blue gold” up to recent times. Let’s see them. The leaves of the plant sown in February, showing great resistance to cold climates, had to be picked as soon as they reached maturity – towards June – and deposited in places sheltered from natural inclemencies but also by too much violent sunlight. A dough was obtained with the leaves shredded in the mills (the oil ones could be used), left to ferment for about eight days. After this time, the still moist dough was made into powder and moulded into “cakes” or “pods”. The weight, the smell and the violet colour were good quality clues. To use them during the dye process the “woads” had to ferment in a tub or tin for a couple of weeks, with the addition of substances (lime, urine) that contributed to accelerating the precipitation of the pigment. At this point – and checked by the wise dye master – the threads or fabrics to dye could be immerged. Although the fabric came out initially with slightly yellow shades, immediately after contact with the air, it gained the typical blue chromaticity.

 

ALLEGORIES

The woad cultivation, decreed, during the medieval ages, the fortunes of some European regions. In the triangle between the French cities of Toulouse, Albi and Carcassone, the woad also decreed the birth of the “cockaigne” myth as merchants used spheres or containers called cocagnes to carry the precious commodities. In Italy, instead, the history of the blue plant is closely linked to the lands of the central Apennine, between Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, decreasing the fortunes of cities like San Sepolcro or Cortona. It should be remembered that the father of Piero della Francesca, Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was a renowned fabric and woad merchant and this surely enabled the master to obtain an exquisite sensitivity to blue-painted clothing, similar to those that continue to capture our attention every time we stop to contemplate the beauty of the “Madonna del Parto”, the “Polittico della Misericordia” and many other masterpieces by the artist. It should be remembered that blue, to borrow what was written by the Tuscan painter Cennino by Andrea Cennini  in his Libro dell’arte, symbolised the highest degree of nobility as an allegorical indication of spirituality and transcendence: a “Noble, beautiful, perfect colour beyond all colours”.  If the pre-eminent role assigned by Piero della Francesca to blue was mentioned earlier, always at the centre of the scene, it is equally true also for Pietro Perugino and Bernardino di Betto Betti (the Pinturicchio), Umbrian painters both attracted, in unison, to the shades that the woad gave fabrics, chromaticities then to be transferred to an altarpiece or a fresco, giving life to a suggestive reference of transpositions and referrals between the different fields of artistic creation.

 

THE PERUGINE TABLECLOTHS

If we now move from the painters who with their works allowed the cities of Umbria to play an important role in defining the artistic rhythms of the Renaissance and we turn our attention to the precious textile craftsmanship in medieval Perugia, the use of the woad is the setting of a dense plot of influences between the different plans of artistic creativity. During the Middle Ages, Perugia’s textile industry became famous for the so-called “tovaglie perugine”. This was a type of white linen cloth with a “bird’s eye” or a “low fish bone” pattern with cotton stripes elegantly decorated with rusty figures, even if blue was predominant. In the realisation of the ornaments arranged along the stripes there are floral, geometric, and mythological animals, with great emphasis (it could not be otherwise) to the griffin, the zoomorphic symbol of the city. Richly elaborated elements that gave the entire product, a marked orientalising influence in this the use of blue is decisive. The decorated “tablecloths” of Perugia, even they debtors towards the woad cultivated in the upper Tiber valley, appear in the inventories of churches and noble houses, but we can also see them, thanks to the hand of painters, embedded in sacred scenes such as cenacles of Ognissanti by Ghirlandaio or the Fuligno by Pietro Perugino. Even in these circumstances, the blue of the tablecloths helps fill the ambiences with colour and, as mentioned before, the deep influence of the woad plant and its striking dye substance are captured in filigree.

 

Fuligno by Pietro Perugino

DIE HARD

The woad, like many other realities in Europe, had to bear the consequences of the discovery of the American continent that decreed the spreading of the most affordable indigo, another colouring agent for blue that, in fact, decreed the abandonment of the old plant now used as plain forage for animals in many areas. But today, under the effect of a request for natural dye agents deriving from environmental friendly productive processes, new opportunities are opening for the woad plant. The story of the blue plant is one that will be continued to be written.

 


To learn more:

Borlandi, Franco, Note per la storia della produzione e del commercio di una materia prima, il guado nel Medioevo, in Studi in onore di Gino Luzzatto, vol. I, Milan, A. Giuffre, 1949, pp. 297-324.

Guarducci, Piero, Tintori e tinture nella Firenze medievale (13th-15th cent.), Florence, Polistampa, 2005.

LAUDATO SI’

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’aqua,

la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta…”

The water mentioned by Francis in The Canticle of the Creatures, also known as The Song of Friar Sun and Sister Luna, the first poem in Italian composed in 1226, can only be blue.

Blue is an evocative colour, just like painting and music. It bounces and resonates between eyes and heart as a colour and a feeling of depth. It is no coincidence that Kandinsky, who was a painter and also a cellist, wrote: “from a musical point of view, azure looks like a flute, blue resembles a cello, or the wonderful sound of the double bass when it becomes very dark; in its darker and more solemn dimension, it has the deep sound of an organ…”.

Blue becomes the colour of purification, with a biblical reference; an immersion in inner life to re-emerge enriched and aware. The chromatic line of the whole Canticle cannot but be blue, a supreme example of a praise to God, to life and nature perceived in its beauty and complexity. In it, Francis descends into himself and then pronounces, in a liberating scream, in a deep breath, towards the sky:

“Altissimu, onnipotente, bon Signore,

tue so’ le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.

Ad te solo, Altissimo, se konfano, et nullu homo ène dignu te mentovare…”

To express the immensity of Francis’ feelings, blue returns with Giotto, a master in the use of one of the most famous and precious colours in the history of art.

Obtained from the shredding of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone extracted in various places in the East, preserved the trace of its long travels to reach Europe in the well-fitting name “Ultramarine”. From the sea – from the water – to the sky, a short way, and the Tuscan artist dispenses lavishly his deep blue lapis lazuli skies in the monumental Basilica Superiore in Assisi and in the Chapel of the Scrovegni in Padua, although in some cases he used the cheap azurite, obtaining a very similar shade. Yet, Giotto’s blue is timeless, capable of reaching contemporary art with its load of suggestions. Yves Klein, creator of the famous International Klein Blue (IKB) in 1956 – “the most perfect expression of blue” to unify heaven and earth by dissolving the horizon with an Ultramarine free of alterations – sent a postcard depicting a scene of the Giottesque cycle in the Assisi Basilica, to his gallerist Iris Clert, delighted for having found a match to “his” blue in those frescoed skies.

 

Assisi

 

It can only be the blue – matched with the Yellow of “… messor lo frate sole, lo qual è iorno, et allumini noi per lui…” on which one could find as many correspondences – the colour of the Franciscan Path. The path that connects the “places” of life and of the preaching of the Saint of perfect joy and allows reaching Assisi from Tuscany and Lazio, then continue to Rome through the Valle Santa Reatina. Over 570 km, including some variants and always between 400 and 600 meters in altitude, sometimes rising to 1,100 meters. The guide is the signposting, placed to make travelling easy in both directions. Easy to locate, interpret and follow, but not entirely homogeneous. If in Umbria and in the Lazio section it combines the blue-yellow colour – differing only for number of signs, more in Umbria – in the Tuscan section it uses the red-white of the CAI (the Italian Alpine Club). The only password, repeated on several sources: “always follow the same type of signage”. Via Lauretana intersects the Francis Route, that reaches Assisi from the Holy House of Loreto, and the Patron of Europe Route, St. Benedict, from Norcia to the Abbey of Montecassino passing through Cascia, and the Franciscan Protomartyr Route, marked by Benedictine abbeys and Franciscan places in the province of Terni.

A ROUTE OF THE SOUL

However, the Franciscan Way is much more than a journey. It’s a Pilgrimage.

“We choose a Pilgrimage Route because we want to change, everyone looks for something different, for themselves, a different relationship with others, faith …” said the Auxiliary Bishop of Perugia-Città della Pieve, Monsignor Paolo Giulietti (President of the Consortium “Umbria & Francescos’ Ways”, dedicated to the spiritual routes – editor’s note) recently, motivating the sense of an experience of this kind.

Yes, because the Franciscan Way can allow to descend into the immense Blue of one’s soul, to drown in personal depths and find the right thrust to re-emerge. It can allow finding a sense of a daily life in harmony with the world, with man and with God, without the steps of the Saint, Patron of Italy and of ecology, overlapping ours, crushing them, but, instead, coming besides them.

The same landscapes that filled the heart of Francis can embody the Pilgrim’s eye, investing it with its words and actions to use like a balm for the heart and mind. A viatic, taken along all routes that will come. Spirituality, welcoming, humility, the bitterness mixed with an unfiltered sensing of Umbria, in accordance with the flow of seasons, can only gratify those who decide to come with a pure and clear mind to Assisi, a city, a crossroads of the world, capable of transcending any distinction of Culture and Credence.

 

Franciscan Basilica

 

Let’s imagine then to leave without hesitation, armed only with a careful eye and the ability to understand, taking the Route of the peace of the woods of the Verna monastery on the Apennine ridge. It is the place where Francis, after following the Gospel to the letter, wanted to share his pain with Christ and wanted it so much that he was rewarded… with the stigmata. He drew the awareness from them, an awareness that he would no longer return, he uttered a commotified “Goodbye God’s mountain, Goodbye Mount Avernia”. From a breath-taking view, from which the threads of love often torn by the egoism of modern life can return to be woven, the route unfolds along gentle paths, perhaps less impacting from the natural point of view but full of history and culture. Here is Città di Castello and the descent towards south to reach high Pietralunga and Gubbio. One of the first, authentic trips of the Saint, after crossing the Medieval Gate, the Church of St. Francis appears evoking, among other things, the miracle of the wolf calmed down with the famous promise Brother Wolf, promise to observe the peace treaty, that you do not offend either men, animals, or creatures?” The Path then touches Valfabbrica and after one of the most beautiful sections, amazing because it approaches the imposing massif of the Sacred Convent and of the Basilica of Saint Francis, the joy of entering Assisi is tangible. With the Franciscan Basilica behind, the Path’s blue thread leads to the Eremo delle Carceri, clinging to the sides of mount Subasio to reach Spello and Foligno. Without leaving the ridge of the valley, here comes Spoleto and then, after going through the pass, it arrives at Valnerina, summed up between Ceselli and Arrone, to touch the water of the Marmore cascade. The borders of Lazio are near and from the Piediluco expanse of water, the blue dives into that liquid depth, re-emerging in the Santa Reatina Valley, at the foot of the Terminillo, and then engages the immensity of the eternal city.

And in the peaceful Blue that was the companion on the way, the pilgrimage become aware that being on the route is already the goal, because the Way of Saint Francis embraces others. The Way of Santiago, for example, under the aegis of St. Anthony of Lisbon, a Franciscan brother who appeals to he who would become Patron of Italy “My Bishop”. In July 2008, the Assisi and Santiago administrations twinned the two cities, underlining the cultural and spiritual closeness that are the foundations of the pilgrimage.

A way to keep alive “The love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Heaven XXXIII, 145) preserved, unconsciously, globally, humanly… in the intimacy of every traveller of life.

A journey through the work and poetics of artists for whom the colour of night is their own personal queste. At times a symbol of spirituality and mysticism, and at other times, of sincerity and loyalty, blue unfolds as a recurring motif throughout the Twentieth Century.

Blue periods and horses

The Twentieth Century opens with the dramatic – almost monochromatic – atmosphere of the Picasso Blue Period between 1901 and 1904. Picasso focused on blue to express the «sincerity […] that cannot be found in pain», after his friend Carlos Casagemas took his own life. Blue was associated with the idea of ​​the night and of secret love, of mystery, the essence of the Picasso blue: «the colour that appears best in the world […] the colour of colours, the bluest of blues. »[1].

The German Blaue Reiter movement originated from the passion of Kandinsky for blue and the love of Franz Marc for horses in 1911. The blue knight fights evil, facing the most dangerous tests, symbol of the struggle between good and evil, of the battle of the spirit against materialism. Kandinsky attributes the ability to show depth, the darker, the more it awakens the human desire for infinity. It associates it with the circle, in its theory in which shapes and colours take on a kind of universal symbolism. Spirituality in art[2] becomes blue.

 

Lago umbro 1942 olio su tavola cm. 52.5×62.5 Foto www.futurahma.it

Dottori and Aeropainting

In those years, the avant-garde Futurism was born in Milan and with Gerardo Dottori[3] in Perugia too, the futurist of Aeropainting[4], of the blue views of Lake Trasimeno. Above a plane Dottori flew over the lake, fascinated by the landscape: «The first time I reached the Trasimeno […] I was deeply impressed. The large mirror of water was calm, and mirrored the sky clearly with the white clouds. But I felt that to enjoy it, I had to see it from some surrounding hill around […]. I was so taken by this splendid vision that I have never forgotten it, and it is always in most of my paintings […], my beautiful Trasimeno. »[5]

Every time we admire an aeropainting by Dottori, the feeling is that of a deep blue colour that calms the senses. The description of blue by the philosopher Max Lüscher comes immediately to mind: «Blue is loyalty and corresponds to the depth of feelings […]. Blue symbolically corresponds to calm water […]. It is the full satisfaction of blessings of the highest ideals of mankind, unity, a union with Gaea, mother-earth. It is the truth, trust, love, and dedication, rendition and devotion»[6]. The paintings by Dottori, where the shades of azure of the waters and sky prevail, are often mystical, thanks to these, a «new extra-terrestrial spirituality»[7] is «reached» as written in the Manifesto.

The lyric and spiritual landscape of Dottori is blue: «I wanted to aerate the earthly landscape by isolating it out of time-space, feeding it of sky so that it became heaven: by this, overturning the great Umbrian Renaissance painting that religiously dragged a lot of heaven down onto earth. If I overflow a gulf or an Umbrian lake it is because I can become a whole with its green-blue-white-grey liquid, reaching all my simultaneous forms of colour, including those mirroring into the water»[8].

Hundreds of works, where he portrays stretching lakes and rivers that spiral and wrap, the aircraft wraps up the landscape creating big eyes, lake mirrors. But in the past, the water of the seas, rivers, and lakes was green; as Pastoureau writes, and it became blue only at the end of the Fifteenth century: «it took a lot of time in the imagination and in the daily life […]for the water to become blue, a cold blue. Cold like our contemporary western societies, of which blue is the emblem, the symbol and the favourite colour at the same time»[9].

 

Nakedness, dreams and patents on colour

In the post-war period, the conception of art changes, but not poetry and the intensity of blue. Henri Matisse claimed that «a certain blue enters the soul»; his Blue Nudes of the Fourties are famous, cut figures of women become a shape using a bright blue, that moves them away from the natural description. For Miró, blue is the colour of dream and spirituality: it reaches its apex with the Bleu I, Bleu II, Bleu III series of 1961, the work is an extreme reduction to the essential, where elements float in a metaphysical universe. But certainly, the most striking example of the blue passion is by Yves Klein with his blue proclamation and his patent, the IKB, the International Klein blue, a bright colour that emerges from an abysmal depth. His blue, as Pierre Restany – founder of the Nouveau Réalisme at the beginning of the Sixties – wrote: «for it, it was the revelation; it is the backing of insights that are not enclosed in formulas, the vehicle of great emotions, an image captured by the vault of the sky and the intimacy of the world, the memory of this immaterial dimension of the universe»[10].  With his IKB he covered girls, canvases, sponges, «with the intent» as Vettese wrote, «of approaching art to heaven, but above all to recover a relationship between art and spirituality mediated, precisely, by colour»[11].

 

Graziano Marini, Utopico

Eastern full moon

Is there anything more spiritual that light? Does refractive light create colours? In Umbria, the quasi-scientific, but amused, concretistic study of light and colours reaches its highest exposition with Piero Dorazio[12], the Roman artist who moved to Todi in 1974 and never left the town again. In his paintings «the fabrics or better membranes», of an almost monochrome uniform painting, as described by Ungaretti, «interwoven with different threads of colour, with rays of colour», the very often blue background, creates the effect of «fixation on a point of light resurfaced from abysses, iterated to infinity»[13]. His blues are able to capture the everchanging shades of the tides, the skies he encountered on his trips and holidays[14]. The writer and journalist Mario Fortunato recognised, at a London auction, after many years, a blue work of art he had seen at the artist’s home, his guest during the Spoleto Festival in 1984: «A small Dorazio canvas with a dominating blue that reminded of the sea at night: it was taken from me for a few pounds and I still regret not having relaunched my bid»[15]. The only student and heir of his art, Graziano Marini, in an absolute personal way, combines Dorazio’s compositional purity, the geometry of structures like postpictural abstraction, the emotional charge of the Informal. His surface is not clean, his painting is like an internal drive expressed through light-colour matter. His travels to Asia made him discover the light of the desert, recreate it: the colour absorbs all the strength and power of light. The darkness is represented by the blue of Utopico II: «I was immediately struck by the light of that unknown sky, I saw that deep darkness of the night, really dark, dark, distant, of an indefinite colour, maybe indigo blue to which a densely immovable sea blue is superimposed»[16]. Blue is born from the Eastern Nights, because, as Goethe writes, «very near to darkness arises what we designate with the word azure»[17].  This affinity between darkness and blue is described also by Kandinsky: «blue can become as deep as black. Besides the physical resemblance, there is also a moral resemblance».[18] At night, the darkness of the room, illuminated by a single blue light-sign by Carlo Dell’Amico[19], to immerge the visitor in a plenilune light, to whom it is required to open up to a vital relationship with the immanent. These works by the Umbrian artist, made from 2008 to 2016 with blue neon, recall the light of the deus, of the luminous being, of the radical dyu, of the God-sky, a colour that represents the elevation of the Spirit symbolically. Frédéric Portal writes in the Nineteenth Century, azure, along with black and white «are the colours of the initiator: that overcomes spiritual (black) death with the power of truth (azure) to obtain the complete regeneration (white) ».[20] So, Dell’Amico, through the emanations of his blue light, reveals to us what is hidden in the darkness, allowing us to understand the hidden message of the words to get closer to knowledge[21].

 


[1] P. Picasso cit. in AA.VV., Colore, ed. Idealibri, Milan, 1982, p. 215.

[2] V. Kandinskij, Lo Spirituale nell’arte,1909, published in 1912 in Munich by the editor Reinhard Piper: “From a musical point of view, azure resembles a flute, blue a cello or, when it becomes very dark, the wonderful sound of the double bass; in its darker and more solemn dimension, it has the deep sound of an organ”, quote from Lo spirituale nell’arte, ed. Milan, 1989. Kandinskij had also created a work of art called Der Blaue Reiter in 1903. This painting is the cover of the Blaue Reiter movement.

[3] Gerardo Dottori (Perugia 1884, died there in 1977), for a complete bio www.gerardodottori.net. Most of his works are kept at the Civic Music of Palazzo Penna in Perugia.

[4] Manifesto dell’Aeropittura futurista, published on the «Gazzetta del popolo», dated September 22, 1929 in the article called edited in 1929 by MarinettiBallaFortunato DeperoPrampolini, Gerardo Dottori, Benedetta Cappa, FilliaTato and Mino Somenzi, Roman journalist that flew over Lake Trasimeno with him starting in 1928.

[5] Framment from Autobiografia of 1963, published by A. C. Ponti, M. Duranti, Intervista su Gerardo Dottori, Umbria Editrice, Perugia 1977, pp. 81-96. See also M. Duranti, A. C. Ponti, edited by, Aeropitture di acque e di colline: Gerardo Dottori e il lago Trasimeno, catalogue of the exhibition (Corciano, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, 4 August – 23 September 2001), ed. Effe, Perugia 2001.

[6] M. Lüscher, Il test dei colori, Astrolabio, Roma 1976, quote. from Il significato dei colori: nelle civiltà antiche, edited by Lia Luzzatto and Renata Pompas, Rusconi Milan 1988, p. 150.

[7] Manifesto dell’Aeropittura futurista, 1929, cit. in www.gerardodottori.net.

[8] G. Dottori in Manifesto futurista umbro dell’aeropittura, 1941. In full world war he wrote the manifesto where he clarified that the real essence of his futurism lied in the representation of mystic-like ambiences and landscapes. Quote in www.gerardodottori.net. For the futurist manifestos see also www.futur-ism.it.

[9] Pastoureau, Blu: storia di un colore, ed. Ponte alle Grazie, Milan 2008, p. 217.

[10] P. Restany, cit. in L. Vinca Masini, L’Arte del Novecento, Giunti, Florence 1989, vol. 5, p. 790.

[11] A. Vettese, Arte e colore alcune linee di sviluppo nel dopoguerra, in Il colore nell’arte, Ivan Bargna … [et al.],  Jaca book, Milan 2006 p. 216. Recent volume Blu K.: storia di un artista e del suo colore di Teodoro Gilabert, Skira, Milan 2014.

[12] Piero Dorazio (Roma 1927 – Perugia 2005). In 1947 he was among the undersigners of the manifesto of Gruppo Forma 1. In 1951 it merged with the group “Origine” by Mario Ballocco, Alberto Burri, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Ettore Colla, giving life to “Fondazione Origine”, within which Colla and Dorazio published the magazine “Arti Visive”. In 1974 he moved definitely to Todi where he purchased an ancient Camaldolese hermitage and here he continued to create until his death. In 1978 he founded the Centro Internazionale della Ceramica of Montesanto, hosting international artists in Todi since the Seventies.

[13] G. Ungaretti, Un intenso splendore, cat. Im Erker Galerie, San Gallo, 1966.

[14] For further study on the colour of Dorazio, see the recent Piero Dorazio “Il colore della pittura”, exhibition catalogue (Milan, Galleria Lorenzelli, October 2015 – January 2016) Milan 2015.

[15] M. Fortunato, Quelli che ami non muoiono, Bompiani, Milan 2008, cap. 6.

[16] G. Marini, Luce Orientale, in Graziano Marini: l’ arte che sa veder morire gli imperi, text by Enrico Mascelloni, exhibition catalogue (Frankfurt, Orvieto and Zurich 2004), ed.  Industria grafica editoriale, Todi 2004.

[17] J. W. von Goethe, La Teoria, op. cit., § 502.

[18] V. Kandinskij, Lo Spirituale nell’arte, 1912 ed. Feltrinelli, Milan 1974, p. 61.

[19]  Carlo Dell’Amico was born in Perugia in 1954, for the latest updated bio see Carlo dell’Amico L’anima che perse la memoria, exhibition catalogue (Norcia, 16 April-5 June 2016) texts by Claudia Bottini, Antonella Pesola, ed. Add Art, Spoleto, 2016. Bio and works also published in the recent catalogue Light Art in Italy, by Gisella Gellini, ed. Maggioli, Milan 2016, pp. 156-159.

[20] F. Portal, Des coleurs symboliques, Paris 1839, trad. it. Sui colori simbolici nell’antichità, nel Medioevo e nell’età moderna, ed. Luni, Milan 2003, p. 71 e 75. See also G. D’Aloe, I colori simbolici: origini di un linguaggio universale, S. Pietro in Cariano (Verona) 2004, p. 85.

[21] C. Bottini, La luce vera nell’esperienza della notte della vita, in Carlo dell’Amico, op. cit. p. 60.

Deruta belongs to the Club de
I Borghi Più Belli d’Italia

 


In the development of Italian historical villages, it is known that, from simple fortresses on communication channels, they have become commercial intersections, often specialized in particular productions. At that time, the difference between artists and craftsmen was rather fleeting; a judgment on the relevance of some arts – such as painting and sculpture -, rather than on others, would only come into the Sixteenth Century, generating a hierarchy in craftmanship.


But looking at Deruta at its decorations, friezes, and ceramic inserts – often you do not catch the difference between art and crafts. Just take a walk through the streets of that small town to realize how ceramics are pervasive of these contrada, and how art has turned into a craft not because of its inferiority, compared to “noble” disciplines such as painting and sculpture, but for its popularity.

Streets of Technique

The southern part of this city, which oversees Tiber River, is dominated by a star which, stuck in the ground like a meteorite fell from the sky, is depicted with a female figure. Made by the students of the International School of Ceramic Art Romano Ranieri, it ushers via Tiberina, framed by full-coloured prunus, where numerous side streets with evocative names open, witnessing an old tradition, where specialization was such to generate even professional secrets. .

Artwork by the International Ceramics School Romano Ranieri, Deruta

The series of streets intersecting a few meters from the freeway relates to the different phases of ceramic’s production, that characterize Deruta. Via dei Fornaciai (who works at the klin), dei Tornianti (who uses the lathe), dei Modellatori (blow molds) e degli Stampatori (printers), but also dei Pittori (painters) e dei Decoratori (decorators), refer to the processing of the raw material – clay, whom a street is dedicated in the northern part of the town – first kneaded so that air bubbles and the compactness do not cause cracks on the finished product, and then moulded. Depending on the complexity and the features of the product, there will be used the colombino modeling – for cups – plates or molded modelling – mainly for plates – or lathe – for pots, lamps or even plain dishes.

City decorations, Deruta

To Tornianti has been dedicated an entire road because using the lathe – especially the one with pedals meant to be highly qualified: the object had to be created from a single piece of clay, which meant that the artisan had to be able to predict how much of it he had to take to give birth to a certain object with a certain shape and with a certain thickness. The hardest part was to keep the lathe’s rotation speed constant, in order to grant the artisan the time to shape the material, to carve it, to stretch and twist it, to give it balanced and tapered proportions. The diffusion of the electric lathes has make little difference: torniante is a difficult and highly specialized job, as the printer’s one, which must be able to create a chalk mold, single or even multiple, to reproduce a prototype, obviously without breaking the artifact at the time of detachment.

Famous Labels

The little fournace in the kiosk of the Ceramics Museum, Deruta

Keep on walking, via dei Decoratori comes to a city quarter whose streets are dedicated to famous personalities who have written the history of Deruta.  
Via Francesco Briganti is the first: he was notary from Deruta founded in 1898 the Ceramic Museum by donating pieces of his property, but, most of all, he directed the historical-philological research towards the creation of workshops for artisans. At the Municipal Art Gallery of Deruta, however, there are about forty works by another philanthropist, Lione Pascoli, who, passionate about collecting, had succeeded in gathering three hundred works of minor art, including still life, battles and bambocciate. The road dedicated to him intersects with the one named after one of the greatest promoters of the ceramics of the early Twentieth Century: Alpinolo Magnini, to whom is dedicated also the local art school, first donated watercolor drawings and ancient majolica to the Museum, then refurbished the luster-style raffaellesco basing on an ancient recipe. Magnini was also the technical and artistic director of the Anonima Ceramiche Society, the Deruta Maioliche Society and the CIMA – Italian Consortium of Artistic Majolica; however, to admire these buildings, it is necessary to climb along the narrow streets of the oldest hamlet. So, from via Magnini we turn right and cross via Nicolò di Liberatore, better known as L’Alunno because of a mistake made by Vasari: he interpreted the inscription alumnus funginie as a nickname, but it only stated that the painter was born in Foligno. Anyway, the painter Nicolò di Liberatore, famous for his realistic heads, is the only artist belonging to the Umbrian Renaissance to be mentioned by the famous artists’ biographer. Together with his father-in-law, he depicted Madonna dei Consoli in 1458, now kept at the Municipal Art Gallery of Deruta.

St. Francis Church from Ceramics Museum, Deruta

Going further and passing under the old suspended traffic light that characterizes the district called borgo – by the name of the road that cut it in half, via Borgo Garibaldi, framed by trees and by a wall glazed by arabesque decorations and tiles by local artisanson the left there is a majestic staircase: it oversees the entire landscape below, then it squeezes under an arc embellished with decorated dishes and pitchers embedded in the stone.

One of the gateways

Looking up, loquats hang over terraces placed even higher: this is a distinctive feature of Deruta, where buildings’ irregularity and asymmetry matches with the countless levels of urban fabric, sometimes difficult even to guess. 
However, walking between narrow and steep streets, often with a dead end, it is possible to find historic buildings and others with a rather folkloristic appearance: it is the case of the Anonima Maioliche Society aforementioned, featuring an elegant Liberty style entrance that opens between ordinary buildings, but it is affected by the negligence and temperature leaps.

Ancient Furnace’s walls, Deruta

Actually majolica is prone to fractures and detachments once displayed to weather. Decorated front doors and façades dotted with women’s figures lead us to the type of building, the most characteristic one. Among all the furnaces scattered in the urban fabric, certainly the ancient one is a building with picturesque, often grotesque features, composed as it is from recycled ceramic squama. The sloping exterior walls are covered with tiles, plates, lids, or even simple fragments, giving to it the appearance of a burlesque fortress.

Detail of the Ancient Furnace’s exterior walls

It is difficult to look away from the countless fragments, but via El FrateGiacomo Mancini’s nickname, another great painter of cups and dishes based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Sixteenth Century) – is waiting for us. After a short climb, we arrive at the High School Alpinolo Magnini, embellished with a characteristic frieze. Facing it, Piazza dei Consoli, with the stretched shape of an avenue, where Palio della Brocca is awarded every year. The scarlet City Hall and St. Francis Church, restored with the local dark stone, open to a quiet giant that seems to cradle the square, especially in the terminal part, where spaces diminish and squeeze. This junction is particularly beautiful: unlike Central Italy’s typical churches, Deruta’s main religious building has a somewhat stealthily entrance, set in a rather narrow and far street compared to the wide Piazza dei Consoli. This shady road also leads to the placid cloister of the Ceramic Museum, where there is a small kiln and a shady live oak.

Precious Materials

We reluctantly leave the complex’s quiet walls to go downhill; we cross an amazing public garden, a sort of balcony on Deruta where even the benches and the fountain are decorated with the local arabesques. An almost infinite series of staircases allows us to descend through the hamlet’s countless levels, until via Fratelli Maturanzio, a couple of Sixteenth Century artists whose memory is now lost in time. 

Decorated benches, Deruta

At the end of the slope, there is the Church of Madonna delle Piagge, which, after a few hundred meters, leaves space to two significant streets: via Verde Ramina and via della Zaffera. The first, along with the manganese brown, is the colour of archaic ceramics, characterized by geometric, floral or zoo-anthropomorphic motifs; the second one, had been named after the sapphire, that is to say the blue colour that, during cooking, swelled, returning herbal motifs, emblems and fantastic creatures in relief. 
It is important to understand the processing of biscotto’s decoration, that is to say of the object obtained after the first cooking, because at this stage the colours change. After being enamelled and decorated, the piece is cooked again, so that the colours could vetrify and take on their actual shades: green ramina from black becomes pale green, while blue is still the same, even if at high temperatures the cobalt oxide could melt, eliminating the decorum.

A glimpse of Deruta from via El Frate

There are also other kind of decorations, as evidenced by the streets that unwinds in the northern part of Deruta: via del Mosaico (mosaic), often gilded in real gold, via del Riflesso (glare), via dei Lustri (luster) – of which the innovator was the aforementioned Alpinolo Magnini – via del Raku, just to mention overseas ceramic traditions, via dell’Arabesco (arabesque), via del Raffaellesco (Raphael-style) and via dell’Engobbio (engobe), which could be associated to via del Bianchetto (whitening). The latter two are closely related techniques: the whiting is the other name of the half-majolica, and it consists in covering the object with the engobe, a layer of liquid and white clay, then to be decorated or carved. This processing was adopted when biscotto cooking was not used and tin-based enamel was too expensive. The cooking was only done once, after the object had been covered with a thin transparent layer. 
The presence of via dell’Argilla (clay) is relevant: it scrambles towards the still untouched hills that look behind it. It is not difficult to imagine generations of ceramists finding the raw material on the slopes of these uplands, as well as in the alluvial deposits of the great Tiber River that runs a little below.

 

More on Deruta

AboutUmbria keeps on doing its journey to enhance Umbrian outstanding qualities and does so by adding a new piece to the articulated puzzle that we started composing two years ago with the store opened in the Airport of Perugia.

 

Since then, the project has grown and saw on the day of April 11th the achievement of a second important goal, the release of AboutUmbria Magazine, the online magazine that describes Umbria and its unique characteristics. 
But we had another goal in mind to complete this ambitious project, but we believe fundamental, today more than ever, to the re-launch of our region, which needs to be known outside of our borders, which needs instruments to be illustrated not only by highlighting the features already known and representing the cornerstones on which the commonly used communication register is based, but also by clearing the commonplace, going beyond the already mentioned and the already heard, showing much wider realities and potentials and many other possible scenarios. 

We started from here and set a few points.
Umbria is green. This is undeniable. How to ignore the environmental beauty, the sweetness of its hills, the green that remains inside, which sometimes seems capable of reconciling us with the universe? But there is much more, and through colors perhaps, we might be able to narrate it by using unusual color matches or, why not, daring ones.
So we thought to tell Umbria through a color, analyzing it, studying it, and then presenting it through a lens every time coloured differently, so that no aspect would remain behind, so that no soul remains unexpressed. But how about Umbria? We did not have any doubts about this, letting it speak. So we made a full use of images, because it is useless to talk if we cannot show what we are talking about.

But how about Umbria? We did not have any doubts about this, letting it speak. So we made a full use of images, because it is useless to talk if we cannot show what we are talking about. And then no inflates ads, no commercials or slogans from the showcase merchandise. Only great care in research, love for truthfulness of information, attention to details. We tried to present the region’s soul that is amazing in its concreteness, magnificent in its essence.
Thinking about Umbria, comes to mind a beautiful woman who does not like lipstick and blush. A beauty without mystifications, the beauty of tuff and travertine, of Assisi stone and sandstone; an authentic beauty marked by time and yet timeless.
That’s why we did not add any overtone, but we tried to get to the essence; with this intent we chose the contents, selected the photographs, thought of the magazine size and also the paper to use.
We tried to go straight to the heart, that green heart that will become many other colors. BLUE, for example.