Italian handcrafts: Monregalese Ceramics
- WTI Magazine #153 Jul 24, 2022
Starting from the nineteenth century, a ceramics culture develops in the Cuneo province of Monregalese. The manufacturers of silk and woollen cloth for military use govern the area’s vibrant economy and trade with neighbouring towns and Liguria.
On finding the production of “fine earthenware” to be an important growth area, the Jacobin doctor Francesco Perotti opens a small workshop located in a hay barn of Mondovì, Rinchiuso in 1805. This marks the start of Monregalese ceramics.
The work is continued by Benedetto Musso, a native of Savona, who is active in attracting knowledge and technology from his hometown and organizing the supply of wood and clay from the Monregalese valley. It was ties with the House of Savoy, which bought the Besio family to Carassone. In 1842, they inaugurated a new factory in the district of Piandellavalle. From that moment begins a relentless proliferation of production units in Mondovi, Chiusa, Pesio, Mombasiglio, Vicoforte and Villanova. Having now taken root in the social and economic fabric of Monregalese, the ceramic industry found itself ready for the world economic expansion phase of the decades 1850-1870. Production starts spreading to working-class and bourgeois street markets, often crossing national and continental borders.
A system for rapid and effective casting was developed along with a series of decorative designs that met current trends. This fresh and fast making process became established forever as “Vecchia Mondovi” productions. In the following century, two new actors come onto the scene: Richard-Ginori from Milan, who buys the “Follone dei Musso” and turns it into a modern pioneering factory.
The second is Levi who takes over Besio in the Twenties and begins to run it with a new entrepreneurial spirit. This twentieth century processing did not essentialy change the traditional system. The casting takes place via the serialization of traditional operations. After WWI, with prices becoming more competitive the tender earthenware begins to lose ground to earthenware produced in other Italian factories.
Today, the Besio laboratory from 1842 is still active. In 2010, on an initiative by the late Marco Levi, the last owner of Besio, a grand Ceramics Museum was opened in the historic palazzo Fauzone in the Mondovì Piazza.
The production cycle
In the nineteenth century, the clay was collected from quarries during the summer and transported to the damper areas of the factory, where it was left to mature for the winter. The following spring, the earth is mixed together with a hoe in a special rounded pit (“tampa”), diluted with water and sieved several times with tools made from silk or iron.
The clay is then left to rest and dry again. Finally, it is moved into oval pits, where workers knead it with bare feet, adding if necessary, water or sand. When the right degree of firmness is reached, workers make clay balls with their hands and hurl them against a wall. The wall features protruding bricks, which support the clay, so that it became firm and dry. The collecting is done by beating it repeatedly with a square shaped iron rod. It is then divided into slabs and handed over to the ceramicists. In the twentieth century, the material (clays from different areas) is ground by stone and passed into “caroline”, namely engine mills with horizontal cylinders.
The mixture is dried in horizontal presses with discs made from tissue, then left to mature in wet canvas sacks. When it takes on the desired mass and softness, it is placed in a plug mill from which it is drawn out as loaves. The slabs were cut with a piece of wire (in the twentieth century using a special wire cutters) into round sheets. The apprentice would take a clay disc and let it fall with force on a plaster model, which in turn was secured to a cast iron bell in a lathe.
The ceramicists at this point turns the wheel, lowering a metal arm (the “receiver”) that holds a tool (the “stick”) at one end with the form of the desired plate's radius, and moulds the piece. Instead, the more complex types were created through casting. In a plastermould, liquid clay (the “slip”) is poured, which once dried takes on the desired shape.
The moulded pieces are left to dry in stacked cylindrical boxes made with refractory fibers, to avoid direct contact with the furnace flames. Once stacked and sealed with strips of clay, the boxes are then placed into the oven. The oldest kilns are made-up of a combustion chamber and two superimposed cooking chambers. In the highest and hottest part, the fresh pieces are placed; in the lower, less hot area, pieces that are decorated and painted, having been already baked.
The rooms are hermetically sealed with bricks and mortar, leaving some small holes (called “spyholes”) for checking the cooking. The fire burns for more than 24 hours, fed by bundles of chestnut wood. During the nineteenth century,with bigger factories and production volumes, the two firing chambers become independent, forming two separate and simpler ovens: one for unbaked clay, another for the glazed bisque. In the last decades of the century, coal begins to replace wood. The largest factories in the area start fitting large “Hoffman” tunnel kilns.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the decorative styles employed in Mondovì are relatively simple. A brush is used, alongside natural sponges, either cut or uncut. In the second part of the century, sponges of different types and templates, gradually supplant the brush. In the twentieth century, stencil decorations using metal friskets and airbrushes with compressed air (“a sbruffo”) start being used.
A complex and sophisticated system is the transfer print, thanks to which the bisque has an engraved copper plate design applied. The decorated pieces are then dipped one at a time in large tubs with silica paint suspended in water. They are then allowed to dry before the second and final firing.
Mondovì and the Territory
The hill of Piazza, flourishes with medieval red earthenware buildings and can be found in the lower Cueno plain. The hill is anything but a theatre backdrop or a wall marking the end of something. It is rather a door; a sumptuous and solemn front door with swirling baroques leading to a rich and hidden world. The territory has a rich and complex history, which refuses lazy clichés and claims its own dedicated story.
In the Middle Ages a onstellation of villages joined the free people living in the hill of Piazza, forming a tenacious region that was allied - but never subjugated - by the House of Savoy. Self-governing, but yet a bellicose, irritable and greedy land; a land of saints, artists, robbers and smugglers. Along its winding valleys passed goods, people and knowledge. These often stopped and left fertile traces in industry, culture and art. At the end of the seventeenth century, this passionate identity clashes with a Piedmont that represents the rule of law and the modern state. Two painful Salt Wars subsequently break the region.
The new century heralds the Baroque period, changing the character and moderating that pride, which turns into industriousness and aptitude for skilled artisanship. The ceramic industry, born at the end of this transitional age is its symbol, born from Ligurian hands and Monregalese clay. It spreads its bright shards of pottery across two fronts, in Piedmont and Italy, whilst from the Savona port it sails to other distant shores.
Those expert brush strokes take this monregalese badge of honour South and North, it’s made of light and freshness, lightness and solidity.
By Camera di commercio di Cuneo with Unioncamere