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. .
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.
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.
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.
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 artisans – on 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.
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.
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.
It is difficult to look away from the countless fragments, but via El Frate – Giacomo 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.
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.
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.
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.
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