Close to the ancient kiln of his majolica workshop, next to the old paints from Castelli and the mineral fragments from which they are derived, a myriad of nativity scene figures and zoomorphic and anthropomorphic whistles fill the room of wonders of Vincenzo Di Simone. Among display cabinets in the glow of warm soft lighting, moving between his objects like a wise demiurge, the craftsman blows into the terracotta mouth piece of every whistle, giving life, voice and breath to his “creatures”, while he tells us about the thrust of imagination that brought them to life.
Situated at the foot of Mount Camicia, at 500 metres of altitude, Castelli is a small village well-known all over the world for its fine ceramic production. According to the opinion of many scholars this activity was first carried out around the twelfth century by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St Salvatore, located upstream of the present-day town, with the promotion of the first pottery productions of everyday tableware thanks to the use of local clay, of which the surrounding territory is rich. The abundance of additional raw materials necessary for production, such as beech wood for firing and the deposits of minerals and silica for the creation of enamels, favoured the development of the artisan workshops and the progressive refinement of the techniques and decorative styles.
Vincenzo Di Simone is an expert ceramist, who grew up together with the old master craftsmen, learning in the workshops the practice of traditional crafts; an expert in forming techniques, he has always produced his own enamels and paints, with which his son Antonio does the decorations. A passionate clay modeller, in spare moments after fulfilling the orders of his established majolica production business, Vincenzo began to produce whistles and characters from the nativity scene, from the most classic to those coming to life from his imagination, from the inspiration he received from the environment, from memories, from “well-being”, defined by himself as that particular creative condition from which his statuettes take shape. Fantastic, imaginary or domestic birds, mountain or exotic animals, legendary beasts and shepherds, pipers and Bersaglieri (riflemen), typical figures of the fable or historical tale, thus become the protagonists of his world, created in a showroom at the bottom of the workshop.
After a trip to Egypt, among mysterious bas-reliefs, colossal sculptures and breathtaking architecture, Vincenzo also began to model pharaohs and figures of ancient statuary, captivated by “another world”. This is how Castelli variants of Ramses II or kneeling court dignitaries are welcomed among the increasingly populated collection of whistles, which range from the original cockerels and birds to figures from the furthest depths of Mediterranean history.
Each whistle has a sound and a “voice”, which corresponds to an intimate connection with the creative idea that generated it. Vincenzo Di Simone blows into each one of them and says that they came out as he “felt” them, “in one go”, suddenly. And the “breath” of the moulded and baked clay is indeed, somehow, the soul of the object, just as the vital breath of ancient mythologies and sacred history is what makes inert matter come alive, populating the planet with men, animals and plants. Whether the sound is shrill or deep, acute or guttural, it makes the whistle a sound emblem and a creature of the “threshold”, an instrument that in the popular culture has also assumed magical qualities and the function of psychopomp, a bridge between different dimensions, between visible and invisible realms, between the living and the dead, between darkness and light, or vice versa, between the luminous certainty of real life and the impalpable and impenetrable destination of an afterlife that is different from anything imaginable.
However, at Castelli, an elementary and miniaturized prototype of the whistle, almost a tooth or a tiny bone, pierced with a needle, had a completely different and more earthly function: it was the “thrush” whistle of the amorous encounters which, with its subtle hiss, signalled to the woman the hidden presence of her suitor (“the blackbird”) near the fountain, when she went daily to get water with the conca (traditional copper vessel )
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The clay bird
Vincenzo Di Simone making a bird-shaped whistle.
Castelli (TE), May 29, 2018.
Video footage by Stefano Saverioni, Don Nicola Jobbi/Bambun Study Centre Archive.
Transmission and conservation
A creative witness of an ancient Italian craftsmanship tradition, widespread in numerous regions and contexts and part of significant museum collections, Vincenzo Di Simone’s whistle production represents a unique case in the town of Castelli, arising from an individual will that is not part of a consolidated local tradition. It is, in fact, an art that is difficult to transmit since it is strictly dependent on the skills and passion of a single person.
Enhancement initiatives to promote his work began in 1998, with the first exhibition in the streets of the village which was then repeated and extended in the following years. Since the 1990s his craft has also been the subject of numerous studies, research projects and publications, especially audiovisual ones, on the initiative of many fans, film directors, journalists and anthropologists from Annunziata Taraschi to Pasquale Giovine, from Dante Albanesi to Stefano Saverioni, from Marta Iannetti to the most recent enthusiasts.
As ceramic musical instruments, Vincenzo’s whistles can be placed in the broad global framework of countless ceramic traditions aimed at creating sound devices with a ritual and recreational function, from ocarinas to sifflets, from “water birds” to acoustic signallers, from the instruments of pre-Columbian cultures to those from Russia during the nineteenth-century, from medieval ceramic toys to the whistles of European prehistory. Many of these objects have today given rise to museum projects, research centres and collections, developed in the context of specialized exhibition centres and specific initiatives, publications, catalogues, exhibitions and themed displays, and it would be worthwhile to implement similar schemes for the ceramic whistles and figures made by Vincenzo Di Simone.