Tuesday, March 29

Italy's Artisans: Hand Painted Ceramics Majolica

The picturesque city of Deruta, Italy has been the center of the world for majolica (maoilche) ceramics since the 1200's. Majolica is referred to as the beautiful ceramics prepared by tin-glazing earthenware and firing it a second time creating the traditional colors and deep glaze which is the hallmark of genuine Renaissance majolica.  These are the unmistakable characteristic vibrant colored ceramic plates & vases on display in homes and restaurants throughout all of Italy.

Undoubtedly the the best remaining example of the majolica tradition is is found at the workshop of Ubaldo Grazia. The Grazia family began producing majolica in the 1500's and has continued uninterrupted passing the antique craftsmanship from father to son ever since. They first started by producing works of art for noble families, convents and The Church and 500 years later it is available to the general public and can even be found at Neiman Marcus & Tiffany's!

 The Art
 Majolica is a member of the ceramics family, and its crafting involves several distinct characteristics: first, clay is shaped by hand into the desired forms. These hand-shaped pieces are then fired in kilns at 1050° Celsius. The products of the first firing are called "bisque."  Before being painted, the bisque pieces must be dipped into a bath of fast drying liquid glaze (mineral oxide) providing a base for the special glaze colors. When dry, the glazed piece is ready to be hand painted. A second & final firing creates the deep and brilliant translucent colors specific to majolica: green, blue, green, purple, brow, yellow, orange and white. Each step of the process is executed by hand by local artisans. 

The History
This technique originated in the Middle East in the 9th century. By the 13th century majolica ware was imported into Italy through the Isle of Majorca, headquarter of the trade between Spain and Italy. The Italians called it Maiolica, erroneously thinking it was made in Majorca. They were fascinated by this new way of making ceramics and soon started to copy the process, adapting it by their own creativity and traditions. The rise of Italian majolica in Europe was fast and reached its peak of artistic quality throughout central Italy during the Renaissance – late 15th and early 16th centuries.
After more than 700 years of continuous production, Italian ceramics are admired around the world. Many museums in Europe and America exhibit precious examples of Renaissance Italian Ceramics. 
The majolica tradition continues in Deruta today, as well as in other parts of Italy such as Urbania in Le Marche. But nothing says Italian ceramics like a plate from Deruta!

The Shop
 Jason & I first visited the Grazia workshop in 2006 and have been buying their ceramics ever since.  Deruta is just south of the city of Perugia, located in the Region of Umbria which is southeast of neighboring Tuscany & Le Marche. Deruta is a perfect day trip destination for ceramics shopping!  We were lucky enough to meet Ubaldo Grazia (25th generation) and he personally gave us a tour of his families workshop that has become an international treasure! Recently his family business made the Fortune 500 list of the 15 oldest companies in the world - it's number 13!
Jason with Ubaldo Grazia
 It is well worth a trip to the U. Grazia workshop as it is more than just a ceramics shop - it is a living history. The artists, with their steady hand meticulously hand paint each piece perfectly replicating antique designs. Take your time and wander through the immense show room with plates, vases, serving dishes and trinkets in a myriad of colors appealing to every taste.  Different designs fetch different prices for example the classic & traditional "Ricco Deruta" design as a serving bowl can run up to 300 Euro. However a new young designer may only cost you 45 Euro/plate.

A few shopping secrets....
1.  Remember when making your selection that these are individual works of art and this will be reflected on the price tag. Think of it as a culinary/kitchen investment just like your Chef's knife as it will last a life time.  That being said, an economical way to shop for ceramics at the big warehouse workshops is to kindly ask for the 'seconds' or 'imperfects.' You will be lead into a back room filled with plates that the untrained/naked eye will never know the difference except for the price. These 'imperfects' sometimes have a mark in the ceramic but most often it is the glaze is off-color slightly & I mean ever so slightly! This tiny imperfection will drop the price by 30%-50% so it is worth asking. (Please not small 'mom & pop' shops will not offer this as they do not have the room to keep anything but the best!)

2.  Go ahead & ship your purchase home, the staff painstakingly will wrap, re-wrap & bubble pack your box, assuring its safe arrival anywhere in the world. They are pros!

3.  Perhaps you are considering a big purchase - this is Italy & prices are negotiable. Ff you are buying numerous platters/plates, etc. at full price don't be surprised if the price drops once the wonderful woman is ringing you up. The more you buy, the more discount they will offer. This is not offensive to ask for in Italy - it shows you know the system.

The Final Product
  After our first visit to Deruta Jason has ceased 'decorating' or garnishing his plates with frilly parsley, etc. but instead prefers to keep it simple & serve his delicious meals on nothing but U.Grazia serving dishes and the result says it all.

Here is what the finished product looks like with a salad of beets & ricotta cheese - Buon Appetito!
Beet Salad in a "Ricco Deruta" serving bowl
The Details
U. Grazia (Maioliche Artistiche Artigianali
via Tiberina. 181
06053 Deruta (PG) Italy
email: ubaldograzia@ubaldograzia.com

*Ceramics Classes now available as well - visit their web site for more information
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