Last summer we went to Italy on a mini-mission to photograph and promote some renowned & uniquely gifted artisans. The cobbled, twisting, turning, breathtaking streets of Assisi, Deruta and Perugia were no match for our Google maps; we made it to every shoot on time. We found more divine craftsmanship per square mile in Umbria, than any other corner of the world previously visited. Our new friend Letizia Mattiacci, who with her husband owns & runs Alla Madonna Del Piatto in Assisi, a delightful B&B and cooking school was the gracious source of our introductions.
We spent a day with Franco Mari, the current generation of the Mari family lineage of majolica artists extraordinaire. Franco works in Deruta, the center of the Italian majolica universe.
La Maioliche d’Arte Franco Mari is one of the original Deruta studios that create and paint ceramics. Ancient skills and secrets have passed from grandfather to father to son. Franco Mari has furthered the Mari family majolica traditions, which cater to a refined worldwide market. As Franco related to us, “Many in Deruta and elsewhere have tried to copy my work, but they have failed miserably because no one except Franco Mari knows how to put his spirit into his pen.”
Majolica, an English version of the Italian word maiolica, is a term covering a wide variety of European tin-glazed pottery, typically brightly painted over an opaque white background glaze, with an earthenware body.
The term maiolica originated from luxury ceramics made in Renaissance Italy, which continued to be made there in increasingly cheap and popular forms, and spread to several other European countries…some of which are known as faience. Delftware from the Netherlands and English Staffordshire ware are other local descendants, not usually known as majolica. In the 19th century there was a revival of luxury forms, known in English-speaking countries as Victorian majolica, with creative use of molded surfaces as well as colorful glazes. Popular and folk forms have evolved in many countries, including the Mexican Talavera majolica.
The name is thought to come from the medieval Italian word for Majorca, an island on the route for ships bringing Hispano-Moresque wares, from Valencia to Italy. An alternative explanation of the name is that it comes from the Spanish term obra de Malaga, denoting “wares from/in the style of Malaga”, which continued to be used for Hispano-Moorish ware long after the industry had transferred to the area round Valencia; or obra de mélequa, the Spanish name for luster.
In the 15th century, the term maiolica referred solely to lusterware, including both Italian-made and Spanish imports, and tin-glaze wares were known as bianchi (white ware). Eventually the term came to be used when describing ceramics made in Italy, lustered or not, of tin-glazed earthenware, and then those from other countries. With the Spanish conquest of Mexico, tin-glazed maiolica wares came to be produced in the Valley of Mexico as early as 1540, at first in imitation of tin-glazed pottery imported from Seville.
Today in English “maiolica” is generally used to describe the finer and earlier wares, and “majolica” for those from the 19th century onwards, though usage varies.
Franco Mari honors tradition–his studio houses a collection of ancient to current masterpieces. Amongst the new pieces, one can literally spend hours simply trying to decide which pattern you love the most!
An afternoon went by in what seemed like minutes, with Marta Cucchia of Guidetta Brozzetti in Perugia. Her “laboratory” is housed in a former 13th century convent. Marta and her atelier are weavers of silk, cashmere, cotton, metallic and linen cloths on her grandmother’s 19th century frames. Marta is both delicate and profound; her commitment to her family, their history, and Italian artisans is passionate and moving. The most difficult part of spending time at Guidetta Brozzetti is in trying to rest your eyes on just one piece…everywhere you gaze, an new gem emerges.
“The founder, Giuditta Brozzetti, was a major figure in the female entrepreneurial scene of the early 1900’s. Inspired by the women’s tradition of producing the necessary materials at home and textiles for the household, she sought out all the Umbrian traditional designs and in 1921 founded the workshop/school dedicated to the production of high-quality artistic textiles for the home. Today, after four generations, the Workshop Giuditta Brozzetti is one of the few remaining atelier of hand-weaving on antique Jacquard frames in Italy; eighty years from the foundation, using the original antique looms and following the same traditional techniques textiles for interior decorating are faithfully produced. Our artistic fabrics are hand-woven with linen, cotton, silk, cashmere and metallic; you can create your individual interior design style through tapestries, draperies, tablecloths, bedspreads, pillows, lampshades, and textiles. Medieval Perugia-style altar cloths with their typical decorative motifs are produced on the nineteenth-century jacquard looms. They reproduce decorative patterns of the ‘Perugian tablecloths’ strong point of the great Middle Age textile tradition in Perugia. The Perugian tablecloths were used as altar cloths in Middle Age Churches in central Italy at the end of the 12th century. Their importance as vestments is proved by the number of times they appear in the paintings of the greatest 14th and 15th century painters, from Simone Martini to Pietro Lorenzetti and from Giotto to Ghirlandaio, and to Leonardo da Vinci. The exclusive workshop is located in the fascinating, deconsecrated Romanesque church of San Francesco delle Donne, built in 1212, the oldest Franciscan church in Perugia.”
A very special place to visit in Umbria is Osteria del Teatro, in Foligno. Actually, it is worth detouring at Foligno to wander this lovely town, but especially to revel in the hospitality and delicious array of goodies from Chef Piero de Mai. With unrivaled aplomb, artistic presentation, and a keen sense of what accentuates each item served, Osteria del Teatro, at Via Petrucci 8, in Foligno filled us with culinary swoons and sated us for days. We wolfed down fresh bread, cheese cured in Piero’s 17th century cellar, and yes, amazing prosciutto with marmalade. Dining with Piero will rearticulate your vision of cuisine in Italy.
Our creative spirits soared and descended with these artisans…how to promote their work to larger audiences before passing time precludes their existence?
Budget aside, we packed every corner of our luggage, and purchased extra hand luggage, to fill with objects that we use and display, which grace our home in unexpected and exquisite ways. Our Managing Boulevardier Kim Steele submitted photos to Getty images. We take every opportunity to remind ourselves and our universe of friends of what awaits them in Umbria. We are less than a drop in this ocean. What can you do?
Visit Franco Mari in Deruta, marvel at the array and depth of colors in his majolica, spend time with his delightful wife Rita, try to decide what pieces to take home, and see if perhaps Franco will let you view his collection of majolica, which is museum quality.
Make time for a trip to Perugia, the University campus is a nice place to wander. Marta Cucchia’s respect for tradition will engage and inspire, her enthusiasm is infectious. We took up too much of her time, and you likely will as well. Marta now offers daily and weekly courses for two or more students in traditional Umbrian embroidery and openwork embroidery.
After days or driving and sightseeing in Umbria, stop, relax, and enjoy a meal of a lifetime, at Osteria del Teatro in Foligno, with Piero de Mai.
To get you appropriately oriented to Umbria, be smart and spend time at Alla Madonna del Piatto with Letizia and her husband, Ruurd. Their home has views of Umbria that will take your breath away.