Ceramics are an Italian art form that’s dear to Italians’ Identity

For many Italians, ceramic decorations like vases, bowls, plates and even umbrella holders are a part of their identity. Heirloom pieces are handed down across generations, perhaps even for centuries. Outside front doors or driveway gates, especially in the south, and in tiny towns and islands, you can spy colorful, hand-painted ceramic tiles personalized with an affectionate nickname for the villa, apartment or ”villino” (a more modest home). Perhaps adorned with a “girasole” (sunflower), hibiscus, or, if near the sea, the motif of some sea creature, like an octopus. There are even whimsical ceramic tiles with designs of dogs, bearing the caution: “caveat canem.”

They’re a rough equivalent of a ”welcome mat” or, the ”welcome to our home” tradition in the Anglo-Saxon world. But in Italy, there are centuries of fierce pride associated with the distinct styles of ceramics. Regions, and even the towns within them, have traditions of decorating ceramics ranging from tableware to public benches in town squares to school playgrounds, with designs proudly inspired by centuries of artistic talent in designing and painting the tiles or objects.

Running until early November 2018 in Pisa is an exhibit, “Pisa, City of Ceramics,” with the Tuscan city offering visitors an occasion to linger much longer than just to snap the fun photos of tourists pretending they are holding up the Leaning Tower. Exploring 1,000 years of art and craftsmanship, the ceramics show concentrates on local history and production, with its roots in ceramics that were imported into Pisa by sea from Islamic and Byzantine areas.

Maiolica is a kind of synonym for tile in Italy, and this reflects tiles that had their origin in the Spanish island of Maiorca. Pisan potters started their own production of notable excellence in the 1200s, and were considered the first such potters in Tuscany, which went on to become renowned for ceramics. Some of the items on display date from medieval times and were found in local archaeological digs. The exhibit also suggests ”ceramic itineraries” including area churches and towers to admire while in Pisa.

Many Italian cities and towns developed iconic ceramic styles, featuring specific motifs or color combination, and even shapes of vases, bowls or cups. Venice and Florence as well as Urbino, the Renaissance hill town in the Marche region, have reputations for excellent ceramics.

One name frequently associated with highly-in-demand ceramics is Deruta, a town in Umbria. It boasts an ancient and noble tradition of ceramics. Its fame in centuries past was in part due to its location, as well as the beautiful creations of its potters. The town runs along an ancient Roman road that leads to the capital, facilitating transport of goods. The town itself sits on hills rich in clay, so the raw materials of ceramics were right at hand and plentiful. Deruta ceramics over the centuries have wound up in prized private collections of antiques, in museums and many homes. Visitors can flock to its ceramics laboratories, a museum and smaller scale artisan ”botteghe,” or workshops.

Italy’s south also has a vibrant ceramics industry, producing pieces with vivid colors and motifs reflecting the lush flowers and bountiful foods, especially lemons and other citrus and seafood.

Vietri sul Mare, a tiny town flanking either side of the busy road that forms the southern end of the famed Amalfi Drive, features one ceramics shop after another. Some are kitschy but fun, especially for souvenirs. Other shops are high-end, with one-of-a-kind decorative plates more resembling the size of wedding platters, and decorative jars so wide you can’t put your arms around them. Most stores will ship the heavier, bulky items to the United States in special protective packaging. Even many lower-priced items can justifiably be called ”one-of-a-kind,” since they are hand-painted, leaving no two pieces exactly alike. While perhaps an impressive umbrella holder might be too challenging for your carry-on, a set of a few hand-decorated dessert bowls, perfect for serving fresh fruit atop some gelato, Italian style, can make for a different and practical souvenir.

The town’s ceramics industry is said to have roots going back to about the 5th century BC, Etruscan times. In Medieval times, the ceramics production was so flourishing, it was a source of wealth for the area. Today, many of the ceramics companies are family-run, and have been in the same families for generations.

Vietri sul Mare has its own style, some three-centuries-old, of ”riggiole,” baked tiles with delicate illustrations that decorate pillars, stone benches in cloisters, floor and walls in churches, even hospitals. The ”riggiole” of Vietri sul Mare are generally subtler and pastel-like in shades compared to those developed in Naples.

Sicily, where nature blessed the land with a riot of colors, also offers opportunities for those eager to see new ceramic styles. Near the delightful sea resort town of Cefalu’ is Santo Stefano di Camastra, chock full of ceramic factories that allow you to peak in, browse and buy, as well as smaller artisan shops. Many of their dishes and vases are painted in a flaming red/orange hue, with highlights of turquoise and sapphire shades of blue, reminiscent of fiery sunsets and inviting waters that the Mediterranean island is famed for. Prices vary from souvenir-accessible to high-end, but bargaining is part of the fun, especially if one is buying several pieces.

If your itinerary doesn’t take you to any of these ceramic-famed locales, you can deepen your appreciation and knowledge of Italian ceramics with a visit to Rome’s National Museum of Palazzo Venezia, specializing in the decorative arts. The museum is often ignored by tourists eager to peer around the palazzo’s corner and spy the balcony where Benito Mussolini used to harangue Romans during his Fascist reign.

The museum’s collection of ceramics is so rich and numerous, many of the pieces were placed in storerooms for lack of space. Here you can see splendid examples of ceramics from, yes, Deruta, Urbino and its seaside suburb Pesaro, but also Faenza and Montelupo, to name a few other places. Ceramics from Spain and the Netherlands are also on display.

Also featured are Capodimonte pieces, popular in the Naples area, and featuring neoclassic styles which draw decorative inspiration from ancient myths.

Many ceramics-lovers flock to Faenza, a tranquil town of ancient Roman origin, in northeastern Italy, to visit its International Museum of Ceramics.

The museum’s collection of ceramics ranges from centuries past to modern pieces by Picasso and Chagall. But its strong point is its examples from the Renaissance, when Faenza had a stellar reputation for artistic production of ceramics. The tradition is very strong today: some 60 ”botteghe” produce ceramics, with most of the shops concentrated in the historic center of the town of some 50,000 residents.

One Renaissance artist, after earning a wonderful reputation as a sculptor, enhanced his fame with his ceramics masterpieces, working with glazed terracotta. Among Luca Della Robbia’s admirers was Piero de’ Medici, of the Florentine art patron family. Della Robbia’s works, with his signature white figures on a dreamy blue background, can be seen in many of Florence’s churches as well as in the Bargello Museum of sculpture in that art-rich city.

While you may not be able to commission ceramic works like the Medicis did in their day, two or three decorative tiles can fit easily into your suitcase and can make a stunning addition when worked into a backsplash design. Such Italian style isn’t readily available at most big-box consumer home projects stores, and your kitchen will be as personalized as the owners of Italian villas who put custom tiles on their terraces or villa doorways.