We The Italians | Italian handcrafts: Impruneta Terracotta

Italian handcrafts: Impruneta Terracotta

Italian handcrafts: Impruneta Terracotta

  • WTI Magazine #170 Dec 18, 2023
  • 992

The origins of this activity date back a long way, and the oldest examples of Tuscan earthenware tiles that we know of are the bricks and roof tiles dating from the eleventh century in the Chianti area. During the fifteenth century, the relationship between Impruneta and Florence was forged, with the Impruneta kilnmen working to produce earthenware for the most important Florentine convents, such as Sant'Ambrogio, La Santissima Annunziata, Santa Trinità and the hospitals of Santa Maria Nuovo and the Innocents.

At the same time, an awareness about the aesthetic value of terracotta developed, with sculptures and internal and external furnishings starting to be produced.

During the sixteenth century, artisans started to specialise in making oil pitchers and citrus fruit vessels. Production also started on special tiles called soppani which were used to cover the internal ceilings of palaces. At this time, the production of decorative objects for gardens, courtyards and palace façades also intensified.

Florence also played host to a revival in the use of exposed brick in architecture. During the seventeenth century, the technique was perfected and a varnish was even applied to the clay in order to ensure that the vessels were more waterproof and hygienic.

A particularly prolific period for fired brick was the interregnum between the two world wars, where rationalist architectural theories praised its functional, economic and flexible nature, while at the same time fascist ideology was exalting economic autarchy and all those traditions that had a distinctly nationalistic bent. One example of Florentine rationalistic architecture is the School for Aerial Warfare in the Cascine park, that was designed by Raffaello Fagnoni between 1937 and 1940.

During the 1940s, fired brick would replace iron, and was put to great use in the wartime industry: gates, railings, benches and other terracotta street furniture proliferated. From the 1970s, fired brick was the most common material used for restoring old villas and ancient farmhouses, whether it was for resurfacing floors, or for completing vases that would traditionally be used for crowning the enclosing walls of gardens.

Fired brick is not too intrusive in historic architecture and in fact lends a traditional character to modern architecture. Currently, terracotta is used both for practical and aesthetic purposes, in order to add a touch of colour to cement and plastered buildings.

Thanks to its “natural” character, it is seen as the perfect mediator between architecture and nature. Anyone who has enjoyed a panorama of Florence or other Tuscan cities from above will haved noticed the main feature that dominates the skyline: the warm red colour of the tiled roofs, which for centuries has testified to the close relationship between the art of terracotta and the region: it is both ancient and modern.

The terracotta

The typicality of the Impruneta terracotta is protected by a Artistic and Traditional Ceramics of Impruneta denomination of origin, which includes ceramicists and kiln operators that have signed up to the Artistic and Traditional Ceramics Producers Register.This denomination ensures that standard,  terracotta artefacts, glazed earthenware or majolica are produced in workshops and factories within the town itself, with traditional techniques and clay that has been extracted in situ.


The first phase of the production is the collection of Galestro clay (also known as “deep blue earth” for its blue-violet colour). This Impruneta clay stands out from other types of clay due to its chemical and physical characteristics that determine its aesthetic qualities, namely its warm and vibrant colour. But those qualities are above all functional, as they can ensure a very high resistance to atmospheric agents and to ice in particular. The collection takes places on the grounds that are part of the furnace complex.

In the driest months, the clay is collected by hand, accumulated and gradually dried out in the air before being stored. During winter, the frost helps to purify it from organic substances, progressively splitting it apart and increasing its plasticity. It is then subject to grinding in hammer mills that pulverise the stones in the clay. Formerly, this was done with millstones similar to those used in oil mills, and moved by draught animals. 

The galestro is then sieved and divided into different types of clay that are used for different products. The mixture is prepared by adding the right amount of water to the clay. This gives it the necessary plasticity for the subsequent shaping phases, having been decanted to eliminate excess water and beaten on a work surface to eliminate air bubbles.

The kiln

The traditional wooden kiln for baking the terracotta has maintained its structural features since ancient times. The Impruneta kiln comprises of a single space divided into two overlaid compartments. In the lower part of the kiln is the combustion chamber, where the fuel is burned. Above this a sort of grid base has been constructed, which favours the draft and the diffusion of heat into the firing chamber, a quadrangular space that is barrel vaulted with an access opening on the front part behind the mount of the chimney. 

The filling of the room with objects ready for firing has been so perfected that it is almost an art form and is known as the “loading” area. After this stage, the entrance to the firing chamber must be closed, by building a wall of refractory bricks that are stacked in tiers, leaving the necessary openings for the proper drafting of the chimney.

The area

Impruneta is situated among the green Florentine hills between Florence and Chianti in the Greve and Ema valleys. It is famous throughout the world for its earthenware production as well as for its locally produced wine and oil.

Already inhabited in Etruscan and Roman times, during the Middle Ages it became centre of a Florentine farming association under the patronage of the Buondelmonti, and was tied to the political and economic affairs of nearby Florence. The real driving force of the Impruneta community was the parish church of St. Mary that was founded in 1060 and soon became an important Marian shrine.

Originally constructed in the Romanesque style, the Church has undergone many changes over the centuries, with the result that only the crypt remains from its original arrangement, while the church itself demonstrates a more sober Renaissance appearance. Inside the church, there are works by major artists including Michelozzo and Luca della Robbia while a miraculous icon of the Madonna is also worshipped there: the “Lady of the Waters”, which according to tradition was painted by the Evangelist Luke and repainted in by Ignazio Hugford in 1758. Impruneta is the capital of fired brick production, which dates back to the 1300s, and has yielded artefacts for villas, palaces and churches.

There is artistic evidence of this in a large number of buildings and streets in the town, not least the Marian subjects including a Madonna from the eighteenth century in via Paolieri. This was made at the Agresti kiln, that has since closed down but was in operation in 1715. However, it has still preserved its original structure today with forms, moulds and equipment from the time. Today, thanks to the town council, it will house a dedicated terracotta museum. In short, Impruneta fired brick is a characteristic and distinctive element of the landscape and architecture of Tuscany.

By Camera di commercio di Firenze with Unioncamere