Italian handcrafts: Montelupo Ceramics
- WTI Magazine #141 Jul 17, 2021
The kilns of Montelupo began producing the first “archaic majolica”, decorated with copper and manganese, as far back as the end of the 13th century, subsequently developing this activity over the course of the following century.
By the end of the fourteenth century, Montelupo was one of the driving forces in the renewal of majolica techniques and shapes in the Florence area, introducing new whitish ceramic mixtures that allowed a better glaze on the bisque. At the same time, the old brown-green two-colour scheme was surpassed and the use of cobalt blue became increasingly common. The pigment was mixed with lead oxide, which would melt during firing, making it rise above the glazed surface (“zaffera relief”).
There are records of the first migratory flows of potters from Montelupo in the second half of the 14th century, indicating the attainment of mature levels of production; this phenomenon increased over the following two centuries, reaching Florence, Pisa, Siena and Rome. In the years between 1450 and 1530, local production became known and exported throughout the world, thanks to numerous commissions in Florence from the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy and the Medici family.
The mid-16th century also brought interest in the polychrome “Compendiario” style to the Montelupo workshops, inspired by two clearly identifiable sources: the so-called Faenza “white wear” and Venetian majolica. However, market difficulties due to a sharp rise in inflation led to a major change in production, favouring new trends. The Montelupo potters therefore began to focus their attention on engobed ceramics (glazed, and also marbled, splashed, etc.), which required lower production costs.
The terrible plague epidemic of 1630, following years of general economic crisis since 1618, then dealt a near-fatal blow to the Montelupo pottery companies. In the second half of the 17th century saw the evolution of istoriato towards the figurative genre, to which belong the well-known harlequins or “mastacci”: figurative plates with popular scenes of particular charm and beauty on a yellow background.
Between the 18th and 19th century, the production was reduced to tableware, but in the 1840s, the Bardi kiln in nearby Capraia provided new incentive for production. In 1913, a family of expert potters, the Fanciullacci, moved to Montelupo, helping to enkindle a new revival of majolica production in the Valdarno centre.
The new ceramic activity was greatly consolidated between the two world wars, thanks to the opening of new factories, which, with the post-war reconstruction and resumption of production in the 1950s and 1960s, experienced a period of intense development.
Montelupo Fiorentino is now one of Italy’s largest ceramic centres, specialising in the production of raw materials and artistic maiolica for export. The companies in the present-day municipality of Montelupo and the production district produce raw materials (clays and dyes), traditional pottery, contemporary ceramic designs, tiles and terracotta.
Montelupo Fiorentino ceramics are made within the identified boundaries of the “production area” and manufactured in accordance with production rules based on the typical characteristics of Montelupo majolica, established on the basis of historical studies and research.
The local area
Montelupo Fiorentino is just a few kilometres from Florence and owes its fortune to its particular geographical location, with direct links to the main access routes for Tuscany and the entire country. Its position in the centre of Tuscany, not far from other places of importance, such as Pisa, Siena, Volterra and San Gimignano, has been a decisive factor in the development of production.
The Montelupo Museum of Ceramics contains over 3,000 pieces, most of which are the result of excavations, research and restoration work done in the area.Unlike in other cities with ancient ceramic traditions, all aspects related to this product still survive in Montelupo. The Ceramics Museum and the Archaeological Museum focus on culture and historical research, in conjunction with other important associations involved in the cultural promotion of ceramic art and history.
On the last Sunday of June, the town celebrates its traditional product with the International Ceramics Festival, while each May, the Terracotta Festival is celebrated in the district of Samminiatello.
The Montelupo Ceramics School is a training module for ceramic art, attended by experts, teachers and students from all over the world. The Ceramics Route is a journey through the authentic Tuscany, the Tuscany of art, was created to raise awareness and promote ceramic art, in association with tourist facilities and artistic and cultural resources.
Montelupo Fiorentino also holds the presidency of the first Regional Association of Municipalities with important pottery traditions, i.e. the Terre di Toscana Association, which includes eleven Tuscan municipalities united by the desire to promote and enhance local ceramic products, as well as the vice-presidency of the Italian Association of Ceramic Towns (AICC), based in Faenza.
By Camera di Commercio di Firenze with Unioncamere