Pottery decoration in Castelli is an ancient and noble art, which has spanned the seasons and styles, spreading its precious motifs all over Europe and the world. The “fioraccio” motif (wild flowers) and the “mazzetto” style ( posies of flowers), imaginary landscapes and mythological scenes, saints and the Virgin, cockerels and cartouches, fillets and volutes, as well as various types of human figures all cover the surfaces of vases and soup tureens, plates and jugs, inspired by the ingenuity and expertise of outstanding master potters, who have conceived and renewed the motifs and techniques over the centuries.
Castelli lies at the foot of Monte Camicia at 500m above sea level, a little village known all over the world for its refined pottery production. According to the opinion of the experts in the field such activity was first carried out around the twelfth century by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St Salvatore, situated upstream of the current town, with the promotion of the first productions of everyday pottery objects thanks to the use of the 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 deposits of minerals and silica for the creation of glazes, considerably favoured the developmentof artisan workshops and the progressive refinement of techniques and decorative styles.
Castelli began to establish itself in the 1500s with the Pompeii family, reaching fame in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the great master decorators of the Grue and Gentile dynasties began working, with the affirmation of the “compendiario” style and the creation of the devotional ceiling of the church of St Donato in 1615-17, considered a turning point for the pottery from Castelli, followed by the transition to the “istoriato” style, characterised by the representation of allegorical and mythological scenes. Finally, between the end of the 1700s and the 1820s, thanks to the stylistic evolution led by the Fuina family, the grand style of baroque landscapes was abandoned, and a new taste was developed which was influenced by porcelain and, enlivened by the addition of new colours, such as bright green and cardinal red.
The decoration of the pottery from Castelli is, in fact, traditionally based on combinations of the so-called “pentacromia”, or Castelli Palette formed by cobalt blue, antimony yellow, copper green, manganese brown and “Castelli” orange. “You have to do everything with just five colours,” explains Antonio Di Simone, among the few potters still active in the historic town centre and a leading figure, together with his father Vincenzo, in the recovery of an ancient majolica workshop and the maintenance of production techniques based on the methods and materials inherited from the past and on the knowledge of the raw materials and their combinations.
Vincenzo Di Simone is a gifted ceramist, who was raised among the oldest master potters, learning the craft in the ceramic workshops; an expert in forming techniques,, he has always produced his own glazes and paints, which are used by his son Antonio who does the decorations. “Homemade paints give a better, warmer result,” says Antonio Di Simone, who grew up surrounded by pottery production, watching and listening to his father work.
Antonio considers himself a self-taught ceramist, even though in the first six months of work at the studio he benefitted from the professional guidance of Master Decorator, Romeo Di Egidio, from whom he learned all the main techniques and also the “tricks of the trade”, related to the success of particular decorations of the Castellan tradition.
When he talks of his long years of work as a decorator Antonio often mentions Carlo Antonio Grue (1655-1723) as one of his role models, together with Gesualdo Fuina (1755-1822), the inventor of the “fioraccio” wild flower motif from Castelli, made in the “third firing” with purplish-red. He produces all sorts of decorations, from classical landscapes to pastoral scenes and mythological ones, but also the representations of popular style, such as dishes and jugs with roosters and borders made with a template or a little sponge.
After the first firing, when the terracotta piece has been immersed in the glaze bath and dried, the painstaking work with a paintbrush begins. This can take whole days just to make a single piece; when it is done, a second firing sets the colours, transforming them into a vitreous material. The right dosage when choosing the colours from the palette, allowing for the chemical transformation, is essential knowledge for every decorator. “You need to figure out in advance how the piece will turn out after firing, because the colours change; you need imagination and experience, “ says Antonio Di Simone.
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The Art of Decoration
Antonio Di Simone decorating an inkwell.
Castelli (TE), May 28, 2018.
Footage by Stefano Saverioni,
Don Nicola Jobbi/Bambun Study Centre Archive.
Transmission and conservation
Ceramics from Castelli are present in the collections of some of the most important museums in the world, such as the Metropolitan in New York, the Uffizi in Florence, the San Martino in Naples and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, and they are part of important regional museum collections such as the Paparella Treccia Devlet Collection of Pescara and the Acerbo Collection of Loreto Aprutino (PE). To promote the culture and art of the majolica of Castelli and guarantee the conservation and exhibition of the works of art which bear witness to the evolution of ceramic production over the centuries, the Ceramics Museum was established in Castelli in 1984, inside the ancient Franciscan convent of the Order of Friars Minor, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century.
Aware of its artisan and artistic history, the community of Castelli and its town council encouraged the establishment of a school in the early 1900s, after some attempts in the previous century. They aimed to support the rebirth of Castellan ceramics following the crisis of Italian majolica from the Renaissance and Baroque period which affected the town during the nineteenth century. It was thus that in 1906 the Ceramics Fine Arts School was established, becoming the “Francesco Grue” State Art Institute for Ceramics in 1961, then the Art High School in 2009. The school encourages a global perspective for the promotion of ceramics and hosts an “International Collection of Contemporary Ceramic Art”, set up in 1986 with the aim of documenting worldwide artistic research in the field of ceramics, and also the “Monumental Nativity Scene” created between 1965 and 1975 by the artist-teachers Serafino Mattucci, Gianfranco Trucchia and Roberto Bentini together with the students.
From the outset the school has fuelled the proliferation of new artisan workshops and the first industrial plants. The so-called “black decade” between 1955 and 1965, marked by emigration, the depopulation of the town and the consequent closure of many artisan activities, was later overcome, at least in part, by the birth of the Centro Ceramico Castellano, a consortium of artisans and local authorities that has given new impetus to the production of ceramics also through the creation of the Craft Village, just outside the town, and the construction of large warehouses and factories.
Since 1965 the municipal administration has organised “August in Castelli”, a summer event to endorse the ceramic art of Castelli and with it a “Ceramics Trade Show” in the historic centre of the town. In recent years a new initiative has been established, the “Festival of the History of Art”, which aims to promote the history of ceramic production in the town, together with the constant organization of thematic exhibitions and the publication of catalogues, volumes and specialized research.
A further sales crisis, mainly involving the larger factories, has affected Castelli in the last few decades, aggravated by the long sequence of earthquakes that struck Central Italy in 2009, and then again in 2016 and 2017, making most of the historic centre inaccessible.
Family-run businesses, such as those of Vincenzo and Antonio Di Simone who have always believed in domestic craftsmanship, in a small work dimension and in the manual skills of traditional processes, reproposing the environmental context of the old workshop after authentic renovation, did not experience a reduction in the production capacity. For the Di Simones the real tragedy is the refusal to believe in the possibility of an authentic conservation of the old town centre with its ancient workshops, and centuries-old family experiences and technologies, which could have brought wealth to the town and preserved the identity of the traditional crafts.
However, there are still numerous skilled decorators working in the village, who are able to reproduce the various types of decorations of the centuries-old ceramic history of Castelli, from the most complex to the simplest, of the most traditional craftsmanship. From this point of view the transmission of knowledge relating to decorative techniques appears, all things considered, to be still firmly established.