The sun climbs as we leave the soft olive hillsides of the Valle D’Itria, where we are staying, for the red plains of the alto-Salento, and the road cuts through carpets of primitivo vines as it reaches out toward the almost irresistible waters of the Ionian sea. We are on a family holiday, but today we are on our way to a place I have been longing to visit for years. My traveling companions have already asked where the beach is, and I have distracted them with talk of artisan souvenirs and a good lunch.
Every year living in Italy takes me deeper into the Italian ceramics world; partly because from my mother I picked up the habit of turning plates over to see where they were made, partly because traditional ceramics just feel so much part of the story of Italian regional food.
Ceramica is indeed a very broad term, under which all kinds; earthenware, stoneware and porcelain, fall. At this point we can divide Italian Ceramics into two broad categories – fine stoneware and porcelain which was, and in some cases still is, produced by the great houses of Richard Ginori, Fontebasso and the Società di Ceramica Italiana . These are the Wedgwood of the Italian situation if you like. Then there is earthenware, or terracotta, decorated in the majolica tradition and intrinsically tied to the cities in which it is produced, the most famous of which are probably Deruta in Umbria, Vietri sul Mare in Campania and Caltagirone in Sicily. Then there is Grottaglie.
There are actually 37 official ‘citte delle ceramica’ around Italy, so the pot is deep, but here I want to give you a little taste for this magical town in Puglia; a place I feel personally attached to thanks to the story of the green plates, and excited to be going back to later this year as part of The Puglia Encounter workshop.
Let’s begin by placing Grottaglie on a map. We are not far from the city of Taranto, and the sparkling Ionian Sea. This was part of Magna Grecia during the period almost 3000 years ago when the Greeks had expanded their empire to include the fertile lands of southern Italy. The Greeks extracted clay suited to the production of earthenware vessels around Taranto, so Grottaglie has serious history. The word ceramica comes from the ancient Greek κέραμος, ‘kéramos’, that means clay or plate earth and the oldest recorded instances of ceramic production can be traced to the 8th C. before Christ. As an inhabited area, just to take things back even further, this part of Italy has been lived in since the stone age, and because the local stone is soft enough, grotto like dwellings were carved easily into the rock, hence the name Grottaglie. Many of the artisans studios in the Quartiere della Ceramica are cut into the ravine that ran up to where the Castle stands, which is now Via Crispi.
The Quartiere della Ceramica has been where it is since the middle ages so it is bursting with history, and full of artisans happy to let you watch them at work, and full of businesses that go back generations and generations. The local artistic high school teaches the students who will become the maestri of tomorrow, while the larger producers fill their kilns with jugs and urns, bowls and lampshades ready to be shipped all over the world.
I could spend days here. There are about 50 factories and artisans’ workshops. All the classics of ceramica pugliese are here; the dot flower pattern, the rooster jugs, the large simple canisters waiting for a wooden spoon collection, the eponymous splatter ware. Then there are the decorative pieces; the Pumo, and elegant single coloured glazed cone with feathers; said to bring good fortune, and which are to be found on all the balconies around the historic centre of the town.
Production can be divided into distinct traditions; the caposanara or ruagnara, which concentrates on the production of amphorae, kitchen utensils and everyday objects, and the faenzara which concentrated on the more sophisticated world of highly decorated objects in the majolica tradition. The latter are also called bianchi or white wares because of the white glazed base on which they are decorated. Both of these traditions are alive and well in 21st century Grottaglie. I’m more attracted by the simple workaday objects like the straight sided bowls, which are made up to a metre across and were used for domestic activities like crushing the tomatoes for preserving. And the flat broad plates with the flower dot motif that hark back to the time when families would share a meal from the same bowl.
The splatter pattern – smarmorato or schizzato in Italian – is common all over southern Italy, but particularly Puglia and Calabria, and was traditionally a cheap way of decorating simple everyday objects. I like to think that the colours – blues, aquamarines, turquoises – are a reflection of the sea. It’s not a crazy proposal – go and look at the splatter ware of Lazio and Tuscany and you see the burnt umber and Sienna browns of her landscape. Pink is in fashion at the moment and of course my companion wanted these ones.
The workshops and showrooms have something for everyone, and there is no real way to say where one should go with their spending money. Ceramiche Nicola Fasano has a beautiful way with simplicity in colour and splatter ware in every dimension and Enza Fasano creates tableware with clean lines and gorgeous shades, as well as perfectly gorgeous decorative pieces. On a cultural level the Museum della Ceramica is not to be missed, along with Casa Vestita which is part studio part museum with a stunning Mediterranean garden which can be visited on appointment and on some summer evenings.
The whole place is a feast for the senses and I’m already thinking about my next visit.
Museo delle Ceramiche: opening hours are 10-13, 16-19, entry is free
Castello Episcopio, Largo Maria Immacolata, at the top end of Via Crispi inside the city walls
Casa Vestita: open by appointment or for temporary exhibitions. Via Crispi, 63A
Workshops and showrooms are on and around Via Francesco Crispi, many of which are centuries old. The Quartiere della Ceramica has been here since the 1700’s.
Aperitivo just inside the walls: Porta San Giorgio Cafè, Largo Maria Immacolata 2
Lunch or dinner after the workshops: Macchiaviva Bistrot: Just off the main piazza of the old centre this simple space is made special by the care with which sisters Anna and Loredana put into preparing the best local produce according to the traditions of the region. Via Cavour, 13 tel 099 450 4695
Want to take a virtual tour? Watch this lovely video.
All Photos are my own, except for the table of ceramics which is courtesy of Saghar Setareh from Lab Noon.