Italian handcrafts: Ceramics from the Reggio Calabria province
- WTI Magazine #165 Jul 24, 2023
The production of artistic ceramics in the province of Reggio Calabria and, more broadly, across the whole region, is one of the most ancient and upcoming local traditions. Thanks to the perseverance of skilled ceramists, coupled with the resourcefulness of capable young craftsman, it stands today as one of those ancient crafts whose origins, techniques and traditions, handed down from father to son, are rooted in a distant past.
In wider terms, the first terracotta artefacts date from the Neolithic period and were found in Japan. Other ancient clay working centres were Syria, Mesopotamia, China and ancient Greece. Indeed, it is easy to see how this geographical area has had a considerable influence throughout the Mediterranean basin, including the Calabria region.
In Calabria, the main centres of artisan pottery production are in the province of Reggio Calabria, particularly in the towns of Seminara, Gerace, Bagnara Calabra and neighbouring areas, as well as in the regional capital. Traditional production is also found in the towns of Squillace (Cosenza) and Gerocarne (Vibo Valentia).
It is worth pointing out that most Calabrian potters, thanks to their appreciation and preservation of ancient pottery techniques, have been able to forge a unique and traditional art, characterised by numerous popular and highly praised artefacts, which are often the subject of symbolism and rituals.
Through the use of modern technology, other skilled ceramists, by functionally and stylistically transforming traditional objects, have managed to combine modernity and tradition to launch the production of a series of products taken from popular repertoire.
Again, the production of artefacts from these centres is strongly marked by the influence of Hellenistic tradition and culture, as well as by Byzantine and Muslim methods during the Middle Ages.
Many Calabrian ceramic items are the reproduction of objects used by the ancient Greek potters, such as those discovered in the necropolis, with their mysterious votive and ritual significance. Of these, crockery, in particular, are the artefacts that are most often revived and reinvented by local artists.
Alongside vase production, there is, of course, a wide range of other objects varying in shape, composition and use.
Ceramic (from the Greek “kèramos” meaning clay) is an inorganic compound material, malleable in its natural state, which undergoes various processes before taking on the shape desired by the ceramist. Ceramics production is extremely vast, with the most unique shapes and various uses.
Among the functional artefacts produced, one should mention construction materials (bricks, roof tiles, funnels), coatings for walls and floors and crockery.
Those purely of an aesthetic and ornamental value include a wide range of decorative objects, such as flower boxes, vases, lamps, plates, statues, party favours, souvenirs, bowls, etc.
Even the colour of the material varies according to the chromophore oxides contained in the clay resulting in a differentiated final product. Indeed, if the clay compound has a greater presence of iron oxides, the product will have a colour from yellow-orange to reddish-brown. Whereas, if titanium oxides are more predominant, it will range from white to yellow. After being cleaned of impurities, the clay is mixed with water.
Once made homogeneous and plastic, the mixture is then ready to be shaped by the craftsman, according to his skills and taste.
Clay modelling can be done using various techniques: freehand, using plaster or clay moulds, using slabs, or with a lathe.
This last technique, in particular, is especially used for pottery production, as it allows the craftsman to express his own artistic creativity and produce unique items that are all different from each other. The modelling is then followed by the drying phase, which is very delicate as it rids the product of remaining moisture and prevents any changes or splits in the object.
Subsequently, the firing stage is performed, which allows the now solid product to preserve the shape in which it was modelled by the ceramist.
The firing of the ceramic takes place in special kilns reaching very high temperatures and can last many hours.
Depending on the various transformations that occur as the artefact is fired, different types of objects can be achieved, such as terracotta, stoneware, porcelain and earthenware.
The last phase of the process is decorating and colouring the product; there are primarily three types of colours used: the engobes, crystallines and glazes. It should also be noted that if the product has been enamelled, it must undergo a second firing to set the colours on the finished object.
The craftsman’s production tools are the lathe and the kiln. The lathe, also known as a “potter’s wheel” is a tool dating back to 3000 BC, the use of which requires great skill and expertise. Nowadays, it continues to be used primarily for the production of pottery, dishes, bowls and jugs. The machine is made up of slab placed on top of a revolving wooden surface, moved using a foot pedal or small motor, at the centre of which the clay mixture is placed to be shaped.
Through the combination of the potter’s expert hands and the rotating movement, the artwork takes shape. The first kilns for ceramics were wood-fuelled and, from the Renaissance onwards, they were built in masonry.
Nowadays – as well as using the still operational ancient wood-burning kilns – ceramics are fired in methane, gas or electric kilns, which can reach extremely high temperatures.
The traditional wood-burning kilns for firing the artistic ceramics found in the three centres of the Reggio Calabria province, especially in Seminara, have common but also unique features. For instance, there are kilns with a dome-shaped cover, loaded sideways through a small opening, or the so-called “open well” kilns where the product is lowered in from above.
Each kiln is made up of two parts: the firing chamber and the combustion chamber. The first contains the artefacts, and in the second, completely underground, the fire is lit to fire them.
The artefacts ready for the initial firing are placed inside the kiln according to stringent ancient rules and are fired at temperatures reaching 1000 degrees for at least 12 hours, including the cooling or drying phase. This step is very delicate and serves to prevent the object from becoming deformed or damaged.
Once cooled, the raw products have a solid and porous structure; before being decorated and glazed by the ceramist, they are immersed in iron oxide and other minerals. It should be remembered that the glazed object will be fired once again at a temperature of between 920 and 940 degrees.
Every part of the province produces typical and traditional products, which vary in shape, composition and colour. Seminara terracotta stands out for its high quality and typical colouring, handed down from father to son.
Its predominant colours are green, yellow, blue and Brown. Its shapes are also unique, being closely tied to ancient popular traditions and decorated by specific shapes of flowers and animals.
The products of Seminara include, first and foremost, the “Babbaluti”, anthropomorphic bottles dating back to Bourbon rule in Calabria, when there was a popular and persistent feeling of discontent towards Spanish rule. Indeed, these artefacts depict the caricatured appearance of the Bourbon soldier, the Spanish gendarme or the incumbent power.
Other interesting local products include the “apotropaic masks”, used since antiquity for decorative or superstitious purposes. These masks are full of symbolic meanings, whose horrible and deformed appearance is thought to drive out evil spirits and keep them away from the house.
In light of this, still today, these masks have the specific “apotropaic” function of removing the evil eye. They are placed in clear sight in homes and on rooftops, on the lintels of front doors or close to balconies and windows.
Of the typical artefacts from Seminara, one should also mention the “fish-shaped flasks”, distinctive objects belonging to the pilgrims of the fair of San Rocco in Rosarno and the so-called “Gabbacumpari” (drink if you can), a wine jug with several holes.
The terracotta production of Gerace is age old and heavily inspired by classic forms of the Greek pottery of Locri; it is also influenced by Venetian art of the 16th century, resulting in the production of goods with soft colours, such as green and yellow and a predominance of floral motifs. Not to go unmentioned, among the most characteristic reproductions, are the “Pinakes”, true masterpieces in both aesthetic and technical terms.
These are votive tables or small paintings, decorated in bas-relief, depicting mythological scenes related to the goddess Persephone and all of the rituals that the ancient Locrians dedicated to her. The reproductions of the pyxes are also very distinctive; these are boxes and containers for ointments in various shapes, the most widespread of which being the chalice covered by a lid.
Other noteworthy products are the “Bumbulelle” (small vases) and the “Quartare” (jars to preserve food), and jugs. In almost all ceramic factories in Bagnara Calabra, there are two co-existing types of production: one which is highly artisan, based on ancient and traditional manufacturing techniques, and one which is more modern and innovative using advanced systems.
The products are made with high-quality local clay and in a wide variety of shapes: plates, bowls, vases, statues, masks, jars, mugs, souvenirs and typical Calabrian figures.
The local area
Traditional ceramic production of the Reggio Calabria province is mainly concentrated in the towns of Seminara, Gerace, Bagnara Calabra and neighbouring areas, as well as in Reggio Calabria, the regional capital.
In Seminara, a characteristic medieval village in the province of Reggio Calabria, the artistic work of terracotta and ceramics, famous both within Italy and abroad, are age old. Their production thrived so much that in 1746, there were 23 “pignatari”, and in the second half of the 19th century, there were as many as 28 kilns.
Gerace is a delightful village in the province of Reggio Calabria, listed as one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, located in the Aspromonte National Park. The centre of this medieval village, marked by the large number of churches, Basilian and Latin places of worship, palaces and buildings of various periods and architectural styles, bears the signs of the numerous dominations which have ruled over village through the centuries. In caves dug into the tuff, there were the potters’ shops and workshops called “argagnari”.
Bagnara Calabra is located in the coastal area called Costa Viola, in an inlet amid hills planted with vineyards overhanging the sea. As well as being known for its production of artistic ceramics, this centre, with its suggestive coves and beaches, is also famous for artisan nougat, pilgrim’s wheat bread and swordfish fishing.
By Camera di commercio di Reggio Calabria with Unioncamere