Artistic ceramics: when craftsmanship follows the path of transcendence

Since I was born, I have been immersed in a “middle ground,” suspended between art and the craft of ceramics. The Italian town where I came into the world and grew up until my teenage years, called Caltagirone, is located in the southern part of the province of Catania (Sicily), atop a hill about 650 meters high overlooking a typically barren surroundings in the northern part and, less steep and arid, in the southern part.

Ceramics: between traditional culture and artistic spirit

However, this seemingly anonymous town in the Sicilian hinterland, famous for its very long staircase of Santa Maria del Monte (also wholly decorated with ceramic tiles), has also always been renowned for its long tradition of majolica making (often called “artistic ceramics” to distinguish it from industrial ceramics).

Glazed ceramic panel depicting a group of boats. Made by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Glazed majolica panel depicting a group of boats (R. Bonaccorso)

Caltagirone, UNESCO heritage site for artistic ceramics

Along the narrow streets (in dialect, “carruggi”) of the historic center, there have always been dozens and dozens of artisan workshops in which ceramists who were the sons of ceramists created their works, taking care of every step of the process: from the purchase of raw materials to the wrapping in newspaper sheets of the pieces sold. My paternal family belonged to this category, and, without any vainness-unjustified; moreover, since this tradition has ended, I can say that it has enjoyed unparalleled notoriety in the surrounding area and different parts of Italy.

When I was still crawling in the large house of my paternal grandparents, the ground floor of which was used entirely as a workshop and for the exposition of artifacts, I moved among dozens of figurines, panels for hanging, plates, vases, and any other creation that might appeal to even the finest palates in Caltagirone. Both my grandfather (my namesake from the “holy name“) and my father Raffaele (who, after the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, alternated between teaching art history and creating ceramics) followed the highroad that skirted, on the one hand, the craft culture handed down over the centuries and, on the other, artistic research and ever new forms of expression.

Expressive forms of artistic ceramics of Caltagirone

As is often the case in such cases, the culture of a place defined rules and de facto standards that, as the years went by, were transformed from innovative gimmicks into actual characteristic patterns. In other words, what was proposed by a potter, if considered pleasing, could slowly spread and become a modus operandi that became part of the local craft tradition.

Decorated majolica vase
Majolica vase decorated with motifs typical of the Calatino tradition

This tradition includes floral patterns based on repeated patterns and shapes resembling colorful bird feathers. In addition, Caltagirone’s potters, remembering, more from history books than in practice, the Arab domination, often did their best to make vases of anthropomorphic form, depicting the so-called “Moors” or sometimes even female characters and knights in the Norman tradition.

Despite the prevalence of these “standards,” my family has always devoted itself to very original artistic research, avoiding approaches that, while honoring tradition, sacrificed creativity. All the photographs in this post (except for the vase with “typical” motifs – a gift for my parents’ wedding) represent majolica made by my father and grandfather.

Sculptural group from Caltagirone depicting two peasant subjects. Made by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Glazed majolica sculpture group depicting two peasant subjects (R. Bonaccorso)

The making of majolica tiles through the eyes of a child

Before discussing other details, it is worth devoting a few lines to making majolica tiles. I must preface this by saying I have never participated “seriously” in these activities. Still, my continued attendance at the workshop is enough to have given me a reasonably thorough knowledge.

The raw material for majolica is clay collected in the Caltagirone area, purified, and consolidated into homogeneous blocks ready for sale. All potters reformed at local suppliers who sold parallelepiped-shaped blocks with a length of about 60 cm and a base of about 20 x 20 cm. I remember a stack of them ready for use in a laboratory corner.

Once the subject of the work was defined, a block of clay was cut (using the simple but highly effective method based on a thread as thin as a violin string) and brought to the work table. All creativity was unfolding in that dirty microcosm, full of tools, pots, jars, pictures of models stuck on the walls, and an ever-present little radio always on.

A job as delicate as that of a watchmaker

In contrast to marble sculpture, which proceeded by subtraction and, alas, was often irreversible (although Michelangelo was able to avoid a few “disasters”-as in the case of the Moses preserved in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome – with skillful stratagems), clay modeling was generally a process that proceeded from the individual parts and proceeded by addition.

Of course, excess clay also had to be removed, but more often than not, they would create small pieces of various shapes to make a hair, now a finger, and so on. The process was meticulous, and the level of detail depended greatly on the potter’s creative idea. When you wanted to make, for example, a realistic figurine, it was necessary to take care of details of even a few millimeters. Whereas, if one wished to transcend the “verist” model (much appreciated in Caltagirone) and take refuge in the kaleidoscopic world of an abstractionism “without excesses of a license,” one could proceed with more incredible speed, attending more to the whole than to individual details.

Triptych based on sacred subject. Created by Giuseppe Bonaccorso
Majolica triptych of sacred subject (G. Bonaccorso)

From clay to artwork

Once the artifact was complete, it was left to dry for several hours. As the clay lost water, it became solid but highly brittle. At that point, the first firing could be done to obtain “terracotta” in the jargon. From dark gray, the object acquired a color between brown and reddish and became extremely hard and equally brittle.

A great deal of pottery has stopped at this stage, although, in general, these are artifacts of modest value intended for non-ornamental purposes. In contrast, the Caltagirone art potters continued the process with one or more colorings. The most straightforward approach was based on “cold” or “dry” chrome plating, which spread an opaque color directly on the clay. The result, very characteristically, was very pleasing, with hues that faded into a pastel hue but, at the same time, had no sheen.

Detail of a majolica angel with unglazed chrome plating. Made in Caltagirone by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Detail of a majolica angel with unglazed chrome plating (R. Bonaccorso)

The most elaborate processes

If, on the other hand, a brighter result was desired, a significantly more laborious chrome-plating process was required. The terracotta object was, first of all, glazed white. It was dipped into a vat containing liquid paint until it soaked, cleaned up, scraped the glaze from the supporting parts, and left for a few hours to dry.

It was baked and baked for the second time as soon as it was ready. The result was a completely shiny white artifact that had wholly lost the porosity of terracotta. With this stratagem, a chrome plating could be made that would be brilliant and a thousand shades of hue.

The color “miracle” in progress!

The colors used at the beginning of this third phase were called “lustri” in dialect slang and appeared as liquids of a metallic nature (including pure gold) of a grayish-purple color. It was impossible to distinguish whether it was a blue or a red at that stage, so considerable care was required. Once the new color layer was applied, they would wait a few more hours and then inform the pieces for the third (and final) time.

The high temperatures melted the colors, revealing their chromatic and luminous character. In addition, the inevitable smudges gave rise to unintentional and unique decorations that gave the object a modern character while respecting the Calatino tradition’s main characteristics.

Enameled majolica one-piece crib with third firing. Made in Caltagirone by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Glazed majolica one-piece crib with third firing (R. Bonaccorso)

Not just vases or plates for hanging

The Calatino tradition is firmly based on “classical” objects, such as plates, vases, or decorative figurines of various kinds. However, as was often the case in other areas of the fine arts, many cues came from religious tradition — nativities, Madonnas with children, angels, crucifixes, etc., filled entire walls.

It is safe to say that, up to a certain period, almost all Calatinians owned at least one small religious artifact made of majolica, whether it was an ornate stoup, an angel (also called”putting”), or a crucifix to be used as a bedside table in the bedroom.

The typical approach of Caltagirone ceramics.

But unlike Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, also famous for its nativity figurines, Caltagirone honored the more classical tradition. Artisans were not looking for photos of political and entertainment figures to make new and original (obviously also decontextualized) nativity scene states. In addition to the Holy Family and animals of evangelical memory, the protagonists were always pastoral and, as if to actualize the episode, they almost always dressed in a “modern” way with pants and smocks.

Enameled crucifix made by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Glazed majolica crucifix (R. Bonaccorso)

There was no lack, of course, of all those items that were appreciated by the faithful. In a historical and cultural context where the Catholic church played a central role in everyday life, families did not limit their contact with the sacred only to participation in religious ceremonies but often wished to have at home small “altars” (typical of devotions to holy particles or the Virgin Mary) and holy water fonts where they could keep half a glass of holy water to make the sign of the cross.

Wall-mounted stoup made of glazed majolica. Made by Raffaele Bonaccorso
Enameled majolica wall-mounted holy water stoup (R. Bonaccorso)

Above the cavity into which the holy water was put were usually scenes with angels or baby Jesus. Small compositions in bright colors and sometimes full of drapery animated the bas-relief, giving it a delicate movement, similar to a spiritual breeze that brushed against the forehead of the worshipper.

Space for experimentation

Although the tradition of Caltagirone has always been deeply rooted and has often conditioned the production of ceramics, my family has often distinguished itself through artistic experimentation of various kinds. Among these, a prominent place is occupied by the so-called “fumi,” which came into play during the final firing of the object.

A powdered cartridge of color similar to a firecracker was prepared, and after a few hours of firing, it was carefully dropped inside the kiln through a hole in the top. Given the very high temperature, the cartridge would burst, and the color (a mixture of different powders) would spread all over the firing objects, solidifying and becoming shiny.

Vase made with experimental technique. Made by Raffaele Bonaccorso.
Majolica vase made with experimental technique (R. Bonaccorso)

The result was very often astounding. The primary decoration blended with irregular patterns in more varied hues, resulting in a translucent patina that changed color depending on location and lighting.

This was, of course, a technique that was as innovative as it was risky, for the result was in no way controllable. Nonetheless, most pieces that have entered my past are endowed with a fascination that transcends the often narrow limits of pure tradition to enter the pantheon of figurative artfully.

Summary of the history of Sicilian majolica

Majolica is a type of tin-glazed pottery that originated in the Middle East and spread throughout Europe during the medieval period. It arrived in Sicily during the Norman occupation in the 11th century and soon became an integral part of the island’s artistic tradition.

Sicilian majolica’s vibrant and colorful designs reflect various influences from various cultures, including Arab, Byzantine, and Norman. The intricate patterns depict a rich tapestry of motifs such as flowers, fruits, animals, and geometric shapes, all skillfully hand-painted on the pottery.

Sicilian majolica has gained popularity over the centuries, becoming a symbol of Sicilian identity and a vital craft industry. Pottery was used for decorative purposes and everyday objects such as plates, bowls, and vases.

Caltagirone, located in central Sicily, is renowned for its majolica production. It has been a center of ceramic crafts since the 17th century, with many workshops and kilns still active today. The splendid Santa Maria del Monte staircase, adorned with colorful majolica tiles, testifies to the city’s devotion to this ancient art form.

Creating majolica involves several complex steps, including shaping the clay, applying glaze, and hand-painting the designs. Each piece is meticulously crafted by skilled artisans who have inherited their techniques and knowledge from previous generations.

Today, Sicilian majolica continues to enchant locals and visitors alike. It is not only considered a beautiful art form but also a cultural treasure that embodies the history and traditions of the island. Owning a piece of Sicilian majolica is like owning a small part of Sicily’s vibrant heritage.

In summary, the history of ceramics in Sicily is a tale of artistic excellence and cultural significance. From its origins in the Middle East to its burgeoning presence on the island, Sicilian majolica has captivated the world with its intricate designs and vibrant colors. It is a testament to the craftsmanship and timeless beauty thriving in the Sicilian ceramic tradition.

Conclusions

In this brief roundup, I hope to have summarized most of the peculiar aspects of artistic Calatino ceramics, particularly those made by my family. This cultural heritage is more than worthy of preservation but, more importantly, enhancement and transmission to new generations.

The nobility of Caltagirone’s majolica sculpture is no less fascinating than the much more highly rated marble or bronze sculpture. Still, the care, process, and pride in displaying their creations make Caltagirone majolica a boast that fears no comparison.

Art should not set limits for itself except those of aesthetics, the nature of which, however, is highly variable and subject to more or less drastic revolutions. Majolica lives in the limit between tradition and innovation, letting new ideas flourish and reevaluating what the ancestor masters left to posterity.

Calatino ceramics, therefore, is not and must not be a local product, confined to a circle of villages, but must globalize, overcome barriers, and establish itself in its own right as a living, vibrant art transported by the desire to communicate a most noble and precious reality to anyone who has the sensitivity to receive it.


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My dog loves Picasso’s rose period

If you could make your pet understand one thing, what would it be?

brown short coated dog beside woman in white dressI would try to make my pet understand the concept of art. I know what you’re thinking: “He’s crazy over! How can he manage the complexity of an abstract idea?’

You’re right; it’s very tough but also the only thing worth trying. Dogs understand many commands: they can sit down, run, take something, bring it to you, etc.

Material actions are easy. Maybe you try teaching your pet how to push a button daily, and you keep failing. It’s frustrating, but in the end, you think it’s just an animal, and this effort is useless.

That’s why I would like to see if my imaginary pet (I don’t have one) can do something based on an abstract mental process.

Wait a moment! Am I talking about mind? Hence, I’m assuming my dog has a mind just like me. Is this absurd? Perhaps it’s complete nonsense.

But reductionists think the mind is just the “manifestation” of our brains’ activities. Therefore, if my beloved pet understands a few commands, perceives my emotions, and shows genuine empathy, it may have a very embryonic mind.

Ok, this seems like a drunk’s claptrap, but I don’t believe I’m to blame. Ultimately, I found this question and am free to speak my mind!

So, if a fluffy dog can think with some fundamental abstractions (it should have a minimal model of the world), it can also imagine non-existent things.

In the worst case, its “mental” object might be a bone or an entire turkey to eat. If it’s satiated, it can be driven by its sexual instinct and imagine a partner.

There are many options. But they are damn usual. What about a blue turkey because its favorite toy is indeed blue? Isn’t this a straightforward artistic expression?

At the end of the day, he’s trying to satisfy its hunger together with some pleasure that doesn’t belong to the intrinsic object itself. It’s hard to state, but the dog uses its brain to “create” something to evoke an emotion.

I do not know if this is reasonable, but obtaining some evidence is the most challenging problem. Monkeys have often shown this ability, and in some tasks, they proved far superior to human beings.

But again, I don’t want my pet to solve puzzles. It’s too dull. I want to observe it by arranging the pieces in a particular way and then looking at the composition in an ecstatic stasis.

In logic, a Latin expression says: “Ex falso sequitur quodlibet,” which means that if you start from a false statement, you can say whatever you want. So, please be kind and allow me to bluff. I don’t have any pets, so my fantastic lucubration can fearlessly unravel itself!


 

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So familiar to be holy!

Write about your first name: its meaning, significance, etymology, etc.

grayscale photo of clear drinking glass on tableMy first name is “Giuseppe” (in English, it’s “Joseph”). It’s a relatively common name in Italy, particularly in the southern regions.

It derives from the Hebrew יוֹסֵף, which means “May God help increase…” the wealth, number of children, richness, etc. If a Jew reads this post, they can kindly add their more expert comments. I only know that the root (from right to left) starting with the letter “Yod” is a way to indicate God in a pronounceable way.

This was the name of Jesus’s putative father; therefore, it’s common in Christian countries (e.g., “José” in Spain or “Josef” in Germany), but I also met people coming from Muslim countries with this name.

One thing is sure: it’s an ancient name, and it was “exported” almost everywhere during the centuries. There are plenty of Joes in the US, and one of them is trying to rule the world right in this period.

The other second sure thing concerns only myself (but I suppose it might have happened to other people, too): as it’s the name of Jesus’s father, an old priest, during my early childhood, used to repeat me “Giuseppe, il nome santo!”, which means “Giuseppe, the holy name!”

Sincerely, I don’t perceive any holiness (at that moment, I probably thought it was just my grandpa’s name) but rather a sense of frustration thinking about my “poor ancestor.” I still debate about the injustice of the Gospels in his regard.

Think about this young man who’s engaged with a lady (Mary) and discovers he won’t ever be able to be a birth father. On the other hand, he must take care of Jesus, who was often disrespectful.

A famous episode is told in the Gospels when his parents lost him in Jerusalem and, after three days, when they found him, Jesus answered that he had to mind his Father’s (God’s) business! Like saying: “You’re only an intern; the company can replace you in the blink of an eye!”

However, until now, even considering some bizarre episodes, the situation could appear strange but is always verisimilar. He works hard and receives the “holy order” (through an angel) to move quickly in Egypt because Jesus’s life is in danger.

He always obeys with patience. But now there’s a problem: these are the only available information the Gospels provide. Then, the four books continue telling the story of Jesus’s public life, and only Mary is mentioned again. Not a word for this poor man! We can deduce he died, but how come the very Jesus didn’t say anything?

He could remember his putative father, bless him, and thank him for what I did. Instead, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t care. They also could have investigated a little more. It’s also a matter of curiosity!

Nowadays, a journalist reporting the vicissitudes of a story wouldn’t make this silly mistake. At least he can integrate later, for example, when someone asks. But the evangelists certainly do not have that option and could have thought twice before leaving out this detail.

But what can we do with the Gospels? Nothing. And the ones who attend the Mass have to listen year after year to a (boring) sermon where the priest explains why Mary didn’t betray Joseph.

Ok, she didn’t. Ok, on March 19th, the Christian world celebrates St. Joseph. But this isn’t enough for me! He deserved much more attention!

Wrapping everything up, in Italy, my name is familiar, so familiar, and shared to be holy, or maybe it’s the opposite. However, I have doubts that the great composer Verdi or the less significant (in my humble opinion) Garibaldi were called “Giuseppe” because of presumed holiness.

Holiness will likely be an add-on reserved for me, and after 45 years, I still have no interest in exploiting it! I’m open to advice or rental proposals!


 

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Sweet like my Nutella, funny like a baby panda!

What is your favorite animal?

When I lived in Rome, I had many tropical fish, twelve turtles, and a brown bunny named Nutella. I’m not an animal lover but loved my little zoo and cured it daily.

I left Nutella free in the apartment and soon learned how devastating a bunny can be. Almost all electric cables were gnawed, the bites entirely damaged several books, and two new doors were scratched irreparably.

However, I was relatively quiet and accepted those as collateral effects that I used to hope to see disappear one day. As you can imagine, that day never came.

To answer the question, I would say that I prefer intelligent animals (i.e., dogs), but I love fluffy puppies, elephants, and pandas.

I tried to book a guided tour of the panda nursery in Tokyo, but it was closed to the public then. I still enjoy the YouTube videos where nannies have to cope with little, fluffy pandas messing around, attaching to their legs, and ready to play any game, like babies.

They are so tender and humane! Like small children, they never stop, and it’s almost impossible to reprimand them. I also saw the giant mothers (who spend most of the day eating bamboo) caring for the cubs, cuddling them, just like a human mother does with her babies.

two white-and-black pandaUnfortunately, adopting a panda is impossible (just a silly fantasy, considering how big they become). Otherwise, I’d add another impossible item to my utopian wishlist.

You can wonder why I don’t get a dog. I want to be honest. While I love them, I don’t have the patience to walk them out at least twice daily, with sun and rain. I know myself: this is too much. But I would adopt a puppy if I lived in the countryside, with plenty of meadows and open spaces.

One thing I consider not pleasant is their lifespan. It is long enough to get attached but too short when you are significantly ahead in years.

I still remember the moving scene in Family Guy when Brian died. I know it’s only a cartoon, but this doesn’t mean its content might be accurate. I don’t think I will be ready to load myself with such a burden, at least not alone.

I’m convinced that animals are much better than humans living together in peace. We all should learn from their behaviors. Dogs, cats, ducks, bunnies, pork, hens, chickens, etc., can be seen together, playing, sleeping, one lying on the other, and never fighting with malice.

In the wild, there are different rules. Animals must survive, and predators can’t just renounce killing their prey to continue to survive. This is part of the game, but it’s much more fair and equitable than what we read daily in the crime news.

Eventually, I can summarize my thoughts by saying I like fluffy, cute animals. In particular, all those who easily understand humans and show emotions and the most sincere empathy!


Photos by Giuseppe Bonaccorso and Pascal Müller


 

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Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal: destination Bintan!

Think back on your most memorable road trip.

Bintan, Indonesia. A wonderful resort for the most excisting business trip of my life!About 15 years ago, I worked in a large pharma firm in Rome. It was a fascinating professional period of my life, with many activities and responsibilities. I had a managerial role and enough freedom to organize my time, travels, customer visits, etc.

Unfortunately, in the same period, I had some personal problems. It was nothing serious, but the result was like living in Dr. Jekyll’s and Mr. Hide’s lives. My mood was constantly negatively affected by a crush that wasn’t evolving as I wanted, and I couldn’t consider myself as personally and professionally wholly fulfilled.

Of course, I couldn’t forget my delusions while at work, but strangely, I succeeded in avoiding conflicts or negative impacts. In the past, similar situations were much more annoying because I couldn’t stop thinking and focus on my work. But, in that case, everything went relatively well because I was pretty satisfied with my job.

As I was part of an international team, and I used to meet my peers periodically in different cities, I eagerly awaited the communication of the next destination.

I was surprised when I read the email and discovered two meetings had been joined. There was also a more extended meeting in Singapore, and our American boss decided to organize our restricted meeting a few days before at a nearby location.

I had no idea about the place: Bintan, Indonesia. However, I saw the pictures of the venue, which was a typical tropical resort, and immediately called the travel agency to book my tickets.

I still remember the moment when I boarded the Boing 747 in Rome. It was like passing through a magic gate. I forgot everything immediately and started thinking about the trip.

Once in Singapore, I took a taxi to the Tanah Merah ferry terminal, and in about an hour in first class, I arrived at this green island with a temperature of at least 38 degrees Celsius (I left Rome in February with a maximum of 10 degrees).

A welcome service had been organized, and I was driven to the resort with a flower necklace and a smiling local guy explaining all the benefits included in my booking.

The day after was the first day of the meeting, and the first thing I did was fall asleep because of the jetlag. In the afternoon, I walked around, visiting a small zoo, a fantastic swimming pool, and a spot where it was possible to see the beach and a sea flat like in a painting.

I forgot all my problems and started thinking about what I had to discuss during the meeting. At night, other people arrived: my boss with her manager and a couple of my peers.

We had a relaxing discussion while sipping a few cocktails, and, at the end, we went to bed after having set the starting time for the morning after.

Cocunut, a refreshing juice after a trip in the tropical forest!The next day, the entire team was gathered in the hall, and my boss arrived in shorts and without any bag or laptop. We all looked at her, waiting to know where the meeting room was, but she smiled and said: “There’s no meeting, you were fantastic in the last year and this is a prize!

I couldn’t believe it! We had a complete package with all the benefits and some guided tours in a forest and a typical Indonesian village.

I can’t write down everything that happened during those few days of the trip. Still, it’s enough to say I was so happy and far away from my everyday routine that I enjoyed every moment of the journey and forgot my delusions.

I still remember that trip as my best one. Not because I haven’t visited other beautiful places but rather because it was like a cathartic process, an inner transformation that impacted my psyche more than any other thing.

I never returned there, and now I don’t know if it would work like the first time. However, this memory lives in me, and I learned that escaping any mental trap is possible. Not necessarily with a trip, but it’s possible, and the effects may be stronger than expected.


 

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The Queen is alive. Long live the Queen!

What snack would you eat right now?

close up photo of pizza with cheeseIt can appear strange, but I’m Italian and haven’t eaten pizza for a long time. This might disappoint some foreigners, but it’s true, I swear!

Hence, I would probably have a “Capricciosa” pizza with tomato, mozzarella, ham, eggs, and mushrooms. It’s my favorite, and I’ve always chosen it.

However, some time ago, I watched a YouTube video where two pizza maniacs (from the USA) visited the oldest “pizzeria” in Naples. I don’t remember its name, but there’s always a long line, and you need to take a number when you arrive and then wait for a server to call you.

I had the chance to eat a pizza in Naples only once, which was excellent. But when I saw the couple having an original “Margherita,” with the typing gummy thin dough a little burned at the edges, I could taste its fragrance through my smartphone!

So, what would I grab now? An original Neapolitan pizza! No doubts!

Addendum: I found the original video! It’s by The Gone Gurl YouTube channel:

YouTube player

Photo by Pablo Pacheco


 

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