Tuscan art pottery, shop in Montelupo

Tuscan art pottery in Montelupo.

Montelupo has been known over the centuries as an innovative and versatile center for creating masterpieces in ceramics. Montelupo was founded in the early Middle Ages and was taken over by the Florentine Republic in 1204. The area was again re-built as a military township and towards the 14th century the town was encircled by walls to protect it against enemies. Montelupo is 25 kilometers from Florence and evolves over an area near the Arno. Ranging over the southwestern hills of Florence, Montelupo lies in an area where the Arno joins the Pesa river valley. Montelupo expanded with a big villa built by the Medici family on the left bank of the Arno bordering the neighborhood of Ambrogiana. By the 19th century, the villa was turned into a prison asylum called the Ospedale Psichiatrico Guidiziario. But the innate talent and passion of the people of Montelupo grew and was sculpted into magical masterpieces in ceramics. Combining old techniques with new and blending art with ideas, Montelupo treasured and guarded fiercely a legacy of ceramic creations.

The artisans of Montelupo enchanted the world with an amazing variety of designs in vases, plates, plaques, tiles, flooring bricks and a host of versatile majolicas. The traditional Ceramic Festival at Montelupo opens myriad delights with the inhabitants dressing in costumes with a colorful pageantry of musicians and jugglers. The Medici Villa dell’Ambrogiana displays the work of its master craftsman, Buontalenti. Montelupo can be reached by crossing Montalbano and just before the middle bank of the River Arno, Montelupo, the ‘Town of Ceramics’, evolves over the lovely countryside of Tuscany. The soil of the river banks has molded the destiny of Montelupo with its rich natural clay soil that is ideal for craftsmen to sculpt this porous material into the making of the famous majolica. The warm and dry climate of the Mediterranean basin has been suitable for the creation of porcelain, ceramic and stoneware. The Majorcan merchants brought in this incredible art from overseas. The creations went through the influences of Hispano-Moresque lusterware, the Renaissance and that of Chinese porcelain. As a result, the ceramic creations were transformed into Faience, the French term for pottery or wares from Faenza, Italy. Soon it was the fashion and the nobility entranced with this lovely form of art, the majolica was used to decorate buildings, palazzos, royal courts and cathedrals.

The ceramic route evolved over the Tiber in Umbria and the Arno in Tuscany with various styles as history patterned people’s lives. Contado in the 13th century woke up from the heavy influence of the ‘stovigliai’ to the ‘archaic majolica’ that produced high quality ceramic products. The talented inhabitants of Montelupo experimented and produced awesome styles that ranged from the ‘international gothic’ the ‘graffite tirreniche’ (scratching technique) and the white ‘ingobbio’ style ending in the Florentine technique which included calcium or limestone and resulting in a stronger texture and finish. The 13th and 14th centuries saw the Montelupo craftsmen using ‘boccali’ which was a white kind of clay glazed over with a deep and creamy finish that was so beautiful that there was no need for the decorative finish which is evident in the ‘bianchi’ (whites) from Faenza. A series of changes resulted in an innovation by the artisans of Florence who used ‘bistugio’ covered by the Montelupo white glaze that brought about the ‘archaic blue majolica’. This was accepted with much popularity as the blue pigment blended with copper oxide resulted in the effect of lapis lazuli with deeper dimensional aspects. Majolica was used in relief works as ceramics with enamel resulting in the ‘zaffera’ work which can be seen in the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and Massaccio’s Brancacci Chapel.

The Montelupo Museum of Archaeology and Ceramics in 1989 discovered a Roman ‘villa rustica’ which goes back to the 1st century B. C. near the Virginio River. The ‘slave villa’ or the ‘villa schiavistica’ is a unique find on the Tyrrhenian coast, north of Tuscany. Spurred on by this discovery, the Museum authorities dedicated the two upper floors to house archaeological exhibits that trace the origin of the majolica from the 1400s and the history of the influence of Montelupo ceramics. The origin of the famous majolica is displayed in a collection of 3,000 pieces of ceramics from the early Middle Ages to the Modern Period. The floors display the Local Archaeology section (Prehistoric times, Etruscans, Romans) and the Montelupo Ceramics section, from the Middle Ages up to the 18th century. The panels on the walls describe the evolution of ceramics with an old ceramics furnace inspired by the craftsmanship and dexterity.

Francesco Antinori signed a contract with 23 masters of ceramics for three years with three unique typologies. The 15th century saw the popularity of the Montelupo majolica going overseas to reach out to the whole world. As incredible information, 90% of the archaeological finds of Montelupo majolica were found in Amsterdam, London and Southampton. Lorenzo the Magnificent’s majolica collection was described as rinfrescatoi, scodelle, piatelli and alberelli as ‘di terra lavorata a Montelupo, bella’ (made from clay worked in Montelupo). Francesco Antinori also contributed other forms of majolica, especially, ‘donò Francesco Antinori per la caccia’ (given by Francesco Antinori for hunting). The museum opens out the art of colouring in ceramics with ‘zaffera tricolor’, the ‘damaschino’ and ‘istoriato’ styles. The Valdarno ceramists created the beautiful Madonna and Child, two lovely angel candle-stick holders in the Robbia style. The Medici collection features two pharmacy jars with Cosma and Damiano. Two bricks are seen with the building mark of Henry IVth. As another interesting fact, between the 1611 and 1617, eight floor coverings of majolica were ordered by Maria de’Medici, Queen of France for her Louvre Castle and her palace in Luxembourg. The lovely orci from the Marni workshop in Montelupo was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1974.

The major majolica centers and their beautiful ceramic collection is seen in Deruta near Perugia that is known for its Bella Donna plates, intricate designs with Luster and Ricco Deuta and Raffaellesco designs and is famous for its school of Majolica in Italy. Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino were famous for their firing techniques with a gold and ruby finish that resembles these precious substances and was popular among the wealthy people. Orvieto and Siena are popular for their Etruscan style and Dame plates with court figures with deep purple and brown effects and copper oxide. Firenze and Sesto Fiorentino, under the patronage of the Medicis and other noble families was rich in its talent and creations in Majolica. Urbino, Pesaro and Casteldurante were patronized by the Montefeltro family which nurtured the talent of the young Raphael whose master was Perugino and whose influence spread to the entire region. Faenza was the seat of the powerful Della Rovere family and it was during the 17th century that the Count Fermiani on his travels to the Orient was inspired by Chinese porcelain from which evolved the Carnation pattern. Montelupo has had a long and fruitful heritage in the creation of majolica.



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