Art & Culture

The ceramics of Vietri Sul Mare: a uniquely Mediterranean history

It is one of the most famous Italian arts globally, an expression of the excellence of the Amalfitan territory

By Vito Pinto

On red roof tile and rare high terraces rises the dome made of majolica ambrogette of the church of San Giovanni Battista in Vietri Sul Mare. It is placed to dominate a sea closed between the two bends of the gulf of Salerno, where history has walked together with myths and legends. An ancient history that refers to the Etruscan Markinna, “a Tirreni condita,” wrote the geographer Strabone, a wealthy city, thriving in trade and commerce, destroyed by the barbarian hordes of Genseric and from which was born Veteris ad mare. The diligence of the people of Vietri has unfolded over the centuries with industrial factories, gouache factories, textile settlements, paper mills, shipyards, and craft stores that have developed and increased a civilization made of clay.

The first votive aedicule

The first traces of ceramic handicrafts are found in faded documents, while testimonies of still existing handicrafts bring back to the XVII century and that 1627. The year is dated the most ancient testimony of votive aedicule still living on the external wall of what was a tower to the fraction Raito: it represents a Christ in Cross between Sant’Antonio of Padova S. Francesco of Assisi. But even earlier, end 1500 beginning 1600, was dated by Prof. Venturino Panebianco, late director of the Provincial Museums of Salerno, the plate, also votive, representing the Baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan, owned by Dr. Giuseppe Di Costanzo in Marina di Salerno. Giuseppe Di Costanzo in Marina di Vietri lost, perhaps in the tragic flood of 1954. Of that plate, there is only a black and white photographic representation taken in 1935 by the photographer Ernesto Samaritani and found in the archives of the Provincial Museum of Ceramics in Vietri Sul Mare.

Homage to the potter by Virginio Quarta

The debate on the authenticity

In the article “La maiolica d’arte di Vietri Sul Mare” Prof. Panebianco wrote: “Another votive tile, now in possession of Dr. Di Costanzo in Marina di Vietri and representing the Baptism of Jesus, although undated, seems rather referable to a local workshop of the 16th century: and, apart from the typical Vietrese technique, it is also a specimen worthy of particular attention for its vigor and conception”. The historian Andrea Sinno disagreed with Panebianco. In his book “Commercio e Industrie nel salernitano dal XIII ai primordi del XIX secolo,” Sinno wrote: “The tile of Di Costanzo equally is to attribute itself to the brush of a master, that master of the new art Abruzzese, wanted to give an essay of its exquisite artistic qualities when in this city the new art began to rise.” And it was, so credited the thesis that wanted the ceramic art in Vietri Sul Mare brought by masters from Abruzzo and especially from Castelli, city of ancient ceramic tradition.

The Byzantine imprint

Later and in-depth studies suggest, instead, that ceramics in Vietri were brought by Byzantine monks who had their stronghold in the convent of San Nicola di Gallucanta located high up at the foot of Mount Buturnino (San Liberatore) dominating Salerno below. As it can be deduced from several documents collected in the volume “Le pergamene di S. Nicola di Gallucanta (sec. IX-XII)” edited by Paolo Cherubini, records that, among other things, refer to terracotta containers called “tafareas,” a term indeed corrupted over time in the dialectal “scafarea,” an object for daily use notoriously made of glazed terracotta and, sometimes, decorated in the concave center.

Export

The art of pottery over the centuries first coexisted with other local businesses and then imposed itself as an essential activity of the territory. Mainly objects of daily use and tiles, the “riggiole” have been exported to Sicily and some countries of the Mediterranean area of Africa.

Sailboats, Avallone’store

The Vietrese influence in Sicily

In the volume “Ceramica Siciliana d’Arte” the curator Antonino Ragona, at that time Director of the Regional Museum of Ceramics in Caltagirone, wrote: “In the meantime, Ligurian and Neapolitan ceramics, especially from the respective centers of Albisola and Vietri, were flowing onto the markets in considerable quantities. We are talking about all pottery destined for aristocratic tables and pharmacies. Through the ports of Palermo, Trapani, Sciacca, Syracuse, and Messina, it also penetrates the island’s interior. It is imitated especially by the workshops of Caltagirone, which also produced throughout the eighteenth-century pottery and pharmacy on a par with those Trapani. With the vascular production, Vietri made to flow in the island also maiolica tiles that soon supplant the production of Palermo. Perhaps this invasion of continental majolica favored, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the rise of Francesco Oneto Duke of Sperlinga factory in 1760. It was located in Malaspina, a pleasant district near Palermo.

Cultured ceramics

At this point, the production of Vietri ceramics was not only a production of everyday objects (caponcelli, plates, cups, glasses, and anything else belonging to this productive sector) but also composed of a certain “cultured” ceramics made of “pump plates” for the tables of the nobles and majolica tiles for floors and coverings. In Palermo, we can see some examples of Vietrese pottery decorating the floor of Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi’s s gallery. It pictures a beautiful representation of the “gattopardi,” and it was the location where the dance scene in the film “Il Gattopardo was shot. In Palermo, there is also another noble palace and a convent where there are large rooms with floors made in the stores of Vietri Sul Mare. These testimonies tell of our coastal center’s productive and economic vitality, which has never stopped producing majolica for daily use, but also votive plates, today representatives of a powerful popular devotion and unique examples of secular activity.

The facade of Pinto’s factory, by Giovannino Carrano

A phenomenon of innovation

There has certainly been no lack of periods of fatigue. Still, there is always some beautiful example of ceramic work, signed and often dated, to declare a presence that today is the most extensive in the production sector and tourism, mainly in the summer. After the period, rightly identified as the “Central European period in Vietri ceramics” (and not erroneously “German”), the coastal town was a ferment of innovation. During this period, a colony of foreigners added a further cultured figure to the production, one for all the Polish Irene Kowaliska next to local artists such as Guido Gambone, Giovannino Carrano, the Procida brothers. Vietri, together with Faenza, partnered with the proposal and then the transformation in law to protect the ceramic art and handicraft tradition. Vietri has been one of the ceramic places where the ferment of ideas has been alive, not stopping the simple reproduction of ancient and consolidated decorative schemes but always following the ways of innovation.

The contemporaries

Active witnesses are those young people of the sixties who have made an evolution by innovating shapes and chromatic signs in the silence of Vietri’s workshops. A wave of young and emerging artists brought a breath of fresh Mediterranean air, searching for new roads and opening them up to other young people. Among them, there were Carmine Carrera with his dozens of lathe-pulled forms, Giovannino with the instinctively cultured line of his representations, Guido Gambone with his “partner” Andrea D’Arienzo, who imposed himself for the new enamels, painstakingly and stubbornly researched, and the unique ceramic frontiers. Giovanni Cappetti, with the uniqueness of the floors of the ancient design but with the modern line, the “Vietri Group” formed by Autuori-Collina-Ferrigno, young people who brought. Liguori brothers and Francesco Raimondi followed the path of craftsmanship, making it more and more cultured. A ferment of ideas, of proposals, of new horizons, were thus opened wide on what was the unique ceramic of Vietri.

An image of Vietri sul Mare

The inclusion in hotels

A path that, in some ways, continues and, at times, becomes a proposal for tourist reception. The Mendozzi family, hoteliers,  for instance, embellish the rooms of their hotel located in a dominating position on the vast gulf, with the colors and signs drawn by local ceramics masters, as proof of a union between ceramics and tourism that in recent years has become a winning combination for the Vietri economy. Indeed, for this sector to continue its journey, continuing to build its centuries-old history, it needs new stimuli, new energy, and above all, the proper support of those who are in charge of protecting and supporting the interests of their country. We are talking about those local administrators who are often distracted by other sirens, whose sole purpose is to make the ship crash on the rocks. Comforting, however, and in some ways, is the ever-increasing, improper appropriation of the term “Vietri ceramics”: a message that flatters because of its attractiveness, but misleading and that must be opportunely denied. The ceramic identity of Vietri Sul Mare is the heritage of the community that has been practicing it for centuries.

The constant transmission of a craft

For more than five centuries, Vietri Sul Mare has been working clay, glazing, and decorating terracotta without interruption. The artists perpetuated a history of ancient, artisanal, authentic knowledge where each object is created solely by the hands of a man and a woman, at the potter’s wheel or at the color bank, to bring a unique and unrepeatable object of Mediterranean history into the home.

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