March 02 2022 – Epic Web Studios
The town of Deruta has been synonymous with Italian majolica virtually since the beginning (i.e., the 13th century). In fact, to some collectors, Italian pottery is Deruta pottery. Of course, that’s a bit reductionist — the artform’s reach extends all throughout the Italian peninsula. But in terms of lasting influence and continued relevance, few towns can rival Deruta ceramics.
In this blog, we’ll discuss why Deruta became such a hotbed for majolica originally, the distinctive patterns and characteristics of Deruta Italian pottery, and why it remains the undisputed capital of Italian majolica today.
Both geographically and geologically, Deruta has a lot going for it. Merchants must have loved its strategic location between Florence and Rome, as these major cities lie about 100 miles to the northwest and south, respectively. Furthermore, it had the backing of the Umbrian capital of Perugia just five miles to the north. Deruta’s positioning along the Tiber River, a key communication and transportation route through Central Italy, allowed its wares to easily travel.
Then there is the soil — a combination of fluvio-lacustrine sediments from the Tiber’s banks and rich silt-clay from the Umbrian hills. These raw materials are ideal for producing earthenware, such as the terracotta that is shaped into Deruta pottery.
The key innovations of Deruta pottery
Mustering the luster
All that glitters is not gold, but it usually is where Deruta ceramics are concerned. Lusterware was nothing new by the time Derutan artisans began tinkering with it — metallic lusters had been used for centuries in the Islamic world, adding shimmering and iridescent effects. However, the brilliant golds of Deruta lusterware became a trademark, probably inspired by the golden-hued skies often found in Renaissance art (gold, of course, indicating heaven’s light above).
To produce lusters, potters apply a thin film of metallic particles to finished majolica pieces before firing them a third time in a reduced-oxygen environment at lower temperatures. The colors and effects expressed depend on the metals used (typically silver salts and copper salts). The most common application of luster in Deruta pottery is the often wall-mounted display plate, which features wide borders for elaborate decoration around the central theme’s circumference.
Relief molding was another unique artistic method sometimes employed by Deruta ceramicists (used even more prevalently in the Victorian majolica produced in England during the 19th century). The technique, borrowed from sculpture, imparts three-dimensional effects that can be either subtle or prominent depending on how much relief is applied.
When present, Deruta pottery usually exhibits details in bas relief (aka basso rilievo, or “low relief”). That means the highlighted element just barely projects out from an otherwise flat surface, an effect achieved by either carving away clay around it or by applying the element itself atop the item (almost like a decal).
Istoriato, which translates to “storytelling,” was a hallmark of Deruta pottery, especially during the High Renaissance (approximately 1490-1527 BCE). It is an innovation less technical than it is thematic — istoriato pieces depict scenes from the Bible, myths, tales, and allegories (especially those belonging to Greek or Roman antiquity). However, the proliferation of istoriato does link directly to a technical innovation of the time — printmaking.
Prints of famous drawings and paintings would often serve as templates for decorating ceramic objects. As for whose drawings and paintings most frequently got the istoriato treatment? Their names were Raphael, Perugino, and Montegna — and they were early advocates of printmaking for the purposes of greater sales reach and self-promotion.
The signature styles of Deruta pottery
We have seen all sorts of stunning and imaginative designs come out of Deruta, but perhaps the most iconic and enduring is the Raffaellesco. The Raffaellesco pattern probably originated in the early 16th century, in tandem with two of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino’s (aka Raphael’s) major works — the oil painting St. Michael (c. 1504-1505) and the painted frescoes of the Stanze di Raffaello (or “Raphael Rooms”) in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City, an art project of literally biblical proportions that spanned from approximately 1509 to 1524.
The defining element of Raffaellesco is a strange beast or creature (most often a dragon), painted bright yellow and/or blue, set against a white background. You’ll commonly see the beast exhaling a puff of wind, which was thought to symbolize fair winds and good fortune to the intrepid sailor-merchant.
Ricco Deruta is another of the most inescapable styles of Deruta Italian pottery, inspired by the frescoes of the artist Pietro Perugino. Not that we want to get away from it — it is absolutely gorgeous! The Ricco Deruta (ricco is Italian for “rich”) motif showcases ornate scrollwork or curving symmetrical patterns, and often a bound wheat sheaf — reminiscent of (and often mistaken for) the French fleur-de-lis. Because of its resemblance to a coat of arms, this style is associated with wealth and prosperity.
Royal blue, yellow gold, and emerald green dominate Ricco Deruta color scheme, although some examples may incorporate orange and turquoise.
Perhaps less distinctive but no less prominent is the Petal Back design. There is a lot of variation in the Petal Back theme, which dates all the way back to the late 1400s — but really takes its cues from Arabic pottery designs that are much older. One can generally expect to see blue and orange egg-shaped petals (or other botanically-influenced shapes) as the basis of interlocking geometric patterns, with liminal areas infilled with bright pops of color for added visual punch. As the name suggests, the overall effect is of an ornate, fully bloomed flower.
Deruta Italian pottery today
As a result of changing times and tastes, Deruta got away from itself a little bit in the 17th and 18th centuries, and became more of a follower than a leader when it came to ceramics trends. However, a renewed interest in Renaissance art begat renewed passion and pride amongst makers of Deruta pottery, and with the establishment of The Regional Ceramics Museum of Deruta (1898) and the Communal School of Design (1903), the picturesque town reclaimed its status as the world leader in majolica.
It is from Deruta that Bellezza imports most of its products, from artisans who have practiced the craft in their families for generations. They know what they’re doing; we know what we’re selling — art steeped in a timeless tradition.