The Transcendence of Italian pottery and glass, and other Italian art.
Italian pottery and glass are not just basic functional ware. They may look like a bowl or a plate that you have washed and rinsed a hundred times, but it is so much more than that. A hand painted ceramic piece, from Deruta or any of the myriad of regions in Italy that call ceramics their specialty, is a personal expression, made with the steady and focused hand of an artist. The motifs tell a story of what is important to the artist—color, food, landscapes. When you serve that steaming hot bowl of fresh pasta with freshly made tomato sauce and grated Parmesan cheese, you are celebrating an artist; an individual whose work it is to paint with incredible patience, passion and care. Their work, whether contemporary or traditional, chronicles the world that surrounds them; it can be a platter with painted olives or a pattern that has historical significance dating back centuries. You become a part of that personal celebration every time you sip coffee from a Deruta mug, serve warm scones on a Tuscan plate or decorate a kitchen wall or outside patio with stunning hand painted tiles. You will surround yourself with the colors and the history of Italy when including these great pieces in your home. Not to mention you might have a story to tell about how you were first introduced to the seductive quality of Italian art.
Maybe you were a student living abroad in Roma, Firenze, Venezia, Parma or Naples. You are living on a budget and your parents come to visit. They take you to one of the more expensive ristorante in town, one that you could never afford on your students’ budget and there you are served on these fabulously colored, intricately designed ceramic plates along with a glass of Chianti in an unmistakable Murano glass wine stem. Italian pottery and glass. You move your spaghetti from side to side to capture the entire pattern. You notice how each table setting in the restaurant is slightly different and equally as beautiful. It is a menagerie of patterns that support and complement each other as flowers in a botanical garden.
Or maybe during a visit to Venezia you meet a beautiful stranger who introduces you to the magic of Italian glass and pottery making. The intensely hot flame slowly melting the solid colored cane, twisting and molding it like warm taffy into recognizable figures. A horse here, a bird there, you are mesmerized by the transformation. You are then taken into a gallery filled with everything from Murano Glassware to Murano Figurines, large vases and chandeliers. It’s like going from black and white to Technicolor; the room explodes in sparkling light and color. It is dazzling and you sit to take it all in.
Or maybe you were traveling by train through the Italian countryside, you order an espresso and it arrives in the most fashionable and beautifully painted ceramic cup. Your server is a young Italian man, dark haired with olive skin and a bright smile. He politely places your hot cup of coffee, with several cubes of sugar nestled on the side, on the table in front of you. The train gently sways back and forth, the rhythmic sound of its wheels on the tracks transfixes you as you gaze out at the rich fertile fields of wheat and vineyards. Old stone buildings, built by masons hundreds of years ago, still sheltering grain that is destined to end up in a sweet Italian pastry, or a local pane specialty.The baker, like his father and his father’s father, still buys his wheat flour, with its distinct flavor pulled from the regional soil, from the same local farmer. Bread is an integral part of any meal—sweet in the morning and an accompaniment to the afternoon and evening meals. While I was a student in Florence, I remember a few times when my hosts refused to sit down to eat until we scavenged up some loaves and it was a scavenger hunt for sure. At that time, bakeries only opened during very specific times and never outside those times. This was true of almost any kind of vendor so you had to be very disciplined about shopping. Luckily we lived near a small family restaurant and we knew the owners. They sold us a loaf and we were able to sit down to dinner.
What is it about Italian creations that make them so famous?
Is it the clay of earth, the wheat from the fields, the glass from Murano, the attention to detail, the artist themselves? Italians have a special relationship with art, they cherish it, place it in a position of importance; they see the value that art has on the human soul. They see it as a refuge from the world, a private space in one’s heart that has the power to heal. Italians can be pessimistic, granted they have had a sad history of corruption by local leaders and exploitation by foreign powers. Their conclusion has been that in a world of disorder, disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted, only artistic excellence is incorruptible.
My son’s kindergarten teacher told the class that they were not allowed to draw pink cats or green dogs, “It’s just not realistic!” Well who’s to say that there are no pink cats or green dogs? Isn’t it the job of the artist to transcend the confines of society, to stretch the limits of the possible, to imagine the unimaginable? If I can’t imagine a fuchsia German Shepherd with yellow spots, then how can I ever imagine a world at peace, a child being healed with the help of a mechanical arm or an all-weather fabric to shelter the homeless. It is the power of a mind without constraints that will solve the challenges to come, that will see the unrealistic become the tool of tomorrow. The artist gives us permission to expand beyond our given boundaries, to escape to a world both foreign and familiar and to be at peace with one’s interpretation of themselves. They give the world permission to see light and color where there is darkness; to believe in the human spirit when doubt is a shadow that follows closely.