24 May 2016


Wall panel by Giovannino Carrano
“See Naples and die.” We almost did. As we were driving on the narrow twisting road on the beautiful Amalfi coast, a coach came round the bend in the middle of the road and hit our car. Franco, our driver, quickly swerved to the right, hitting a rock, and the coach sliced off the left hand side of his vehicle. No-one was hurt, but I don’t like to think too much about the odd half metre here or there.

We'd been to see Amalfi, Positano, Ravello and Sorrento. Maiolica has been made in this area for almost as long as in Tuscany, in a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance. In Vietri sul Mare, the main pottery centre of the Amalfi coast, the streets are lined with pottery shops and some of the factories and studios are very old. There's a thriving tourist trade but there are such quantities of pottery in the shops that you wonder who buys it all. The Solimene factory, housed in an extraordinary modernist building (see video), has a vast showroom from which, incidentally, one can see the pottery being glazed and decorated in the adjacent workshop, but only a fraction is sold to visitors and they export much of their produce.

Unfortunately, a lot of modern Italian art ceramics is trash and its tradition has been debased by commercialism. Much of the brushwork is sloppy, done by painters with little skill, and most of the pots are covered with a harsh, shiny, very opaque white glaze that uses zircon as an opacifier instead of the traditional tin. Tin is more sympathetic both to the painted colours and the underlying clay body but it’s very expensive. I have a Solimene pot made thirty years ago on which the glaze has a satin finish, is probably made with tin as well as zircon and is slightly translucent, revealing the pink clay body. Modern Solimene work is not so subtle.


Plates from the 1950s (unsigned) set into the wall of the Solimene
factory. The climate means they don't have to be frost-proof.

But among the trash there is gold, and of particular interest is the so-called German period of the 1920s and 30s in which immigrants from northern Europe gave an artistic impetus to Vietri ceramics that carried through to the 1950s and produced work of high quality. The ceramics of Vietri, in particular those of the German period, are much studied in Italy, attracting the attention of academics and forming the subject of conferences and books, but they are almost ignored in Britain.

In Vietri a lot of the work from this period has been mounted on the walls and so you can still see it. Solimene put several plates on the wall of their factory, built in the 1950s - the combination of copper green and black in the old Solimene plates is characteristic - and there are ceramic plaques in other parts of the town, including on defunct factories, and I’ve illustrated some of it here, including coloured wall tiles by the excellent Giovannino Carrano (top picture). On the Vietri seafront there are some large vessels used as street furniture, modern work of higher quality than the pottery in most of the shops, made by Lucio Liguori, whom we met by chance.

At Raito, a bus ride from Vietri, there’s a museum of ceramics which has a historical survey of the pottery of the Amalfi coast, with a collection from the German period. My advice to you, if you want to go there, is to get to Salerno by train and then ask a taxi to take you to the museum, because, on foot in the village, you may not find it. It’s a tribute to the people of Raito that everyone we asked knew exactly where it was, but the village is on a steep hill and you get up and down it by winding paths. When Google maps told us we were there, we were a hundred feet above it and couldn’t see how to get to it.

Lucio Liguori at work in his studio in Raito
One of Lucio's anchovy plates
Just as we were getting lost on a broken path covered in brambles, a man on a motor scooter shouted down from the road and asked us what we were looking for. “Il museo della ceramica.” “È chiuso, aperto domani” – it’s closed, open tomorrow. We clambered up to where he was waiting. He said he was a potter. I said I was a potter too. He introduced himself, Lucio Liguori, and took us to his studio where he works with his wife and nephew. It’s big, modern and enviably well equipped. Lucio was born in Vietri in 1958 and studied at the art school in Salerno. He learned pottery in several of the Vietri workshops, starting his own studio in 1988. He works in the local tradition, taking inspiration from the marine environment, with a fascination for anchovies. We bought a couple of plates from him with anchovy designs (pictured), with an interesting semi-opaque glaze which allows him to apply some decoration in white over the top – the traditional “bianco sopra bianco” technique of old maiolica.

As I said, you'll be hard put to find much about this pottery from English writers, but I've ordered a couple of Italian books, Ceramica vietrese 1924-1954: Il periodo Tedesco - Gli anni cinquanta by Giorgio Napolitano (The Ceramics of Vietri 1924-1954: The German Period to the Fifties) and Valerio Tarraroli's Italian Art Ceramics 1900-1950, which has been translated into English, so I hope to post more later.