Majolica Mecca

American importer Carol LeWitt, the owner of Ceramica, takes us on a tour of Deruta, Italy, to meet the masters of Majolica.

As we drive toward Deruta on a sunlit morning, the sienna-hued town of Spoleto recedes behind us. The surrounding hills are a moss green dotted with butter yellow sunflowers. The colors of this Umbrian landscape are perfectly reflected in majolica, the ceramicware for which this region is known and which I'm en route to see. My guide is Carol LeWitt, an American and part-time Spoletan, and for her majolica is both a passion and a business.

The passion came first. LeWitt discovered majolica almost 20 years ago, when she and her husband, the renowned conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, were setting up the kitchen of the rustic farmhouse they had just bought in Umbria. "We didn't have dishes," Sol says, "so we went to a store in Rome, and we liked these plain white dishes with a blue line on them. And the owner said he didn't have enough, but why didn't we just go to Deruta, where the plates are made, and meet the potters."

They went, and they were so taken with the artistry of the twice-fired, delicately painted pottery that soon Carol LeWitt and her friend Carol Huebner decided to start a company to create and sell it. Today Ceramica has six stores, the largest one in Chester, Connecticut.

In the early Eighties, when the LeWitts first went to Deruta, the potters were languishing, their children were leaving the studios and the art of majolica was becoming the stuff of tourist coffee mugs. Today, because of importers like Carol LeWitt, there's worldwide interest in majolica, and the ancient, picturesque town of Deruta is home to some 2,500 artisans, with pottery studios every six feet, most of them open to visitors.

The initial idea, LeWitt tells me as we drive into Deruta, was to commission well-known artists to design pieces. Sol LeWitt's first dinnerware pattern for his wife's fledgling ceramics company was a solid blue star on a white background. But as she got to know the artisans and learned more about the traditional Renaissance designs, she decided to work with the local potters and, as she puts it, "develop a vocabulary of design together."

For inspiration, she and Huebner sought out pottery shards of the earliest majolica found in the Deruta ceramics museum. "Then we reinvented them," she says. "I try to do designs that makes sense in majolica, with the thickness of the pottery and the rich color." Derived from the Spanish-Moresque tin-glazed ceramics that Majorcan traders brought to Italy in the 13th century, traditional majolica had only four colors: dark blue, green (the same color as the oxidation on church bells), yellow and sienna. Today most potters have added more colors--even pink. "Most of my wares are the original four colors," LeWitt says, "but I've added a green that wouldn't have existed."

Although LeWitt believes that "the original designs seem the most modern," she often simplifies the patterns, removing too many birds or curlicues, say, or narrowing borders. At Ceramiche Sberna, where some of LeWitt's dinnerware is made, she shows me a traditional plate with a border of trailing vines encircling a line. On her dinnerware, by contrast, she has removed the line and the vines trail into the plate's center--a subtle but lovely change.

Tiny leaves and curlicues are painted freehand on many of LeWitt's plates; more intricate designs are first traced on paper and then stenciled onto the pottery in a centuries-old process called pouncing. Next, the stenciled designs are painted in with oxtail brushes. The images, LeWitt tells me, come primarily from the great paintings of Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael, who himself purloined images from tombs with carvings of grotesque gargoyle-like figures. During the Renaissance, when majolica was considered high art, potters began the tradition of painting a portrait in the center of the plate with an elaborate border around it.

At the Fratelli Mari factory, which produces many of LeWitt's pieces, the surety of the hands of the ceramic painters is astonishing. Listening to Italian pop music, they spend eight hours a day bent over their desks. Some have apprenticed to the great majolica masters; others have come from art schools. The difference, LeWitt says, is that the masters could do it all, while many in the new generation specialize in one thing.

Later on, after a visit to another of LeWitt's studios, Ceramiche Chiucchiù, we end up at La Gioconda, which makes most of Ceramica's dinnerware. La Gioconda was the first place that LeWitt discovered when she began her company, and it's the one her husband worked with on his plate designs. It's a very small factory that starts its production process with bisqueware, the stage after the first firing. Workers at La Gioconda dip the bisqueware in white tin-bearing enamel, paint it, spray it with crystalline glaze and fire it again for 24 hours. It's the glazing and the second firing that distinguish majolica and give the ceramic its legendary shine and opulence. In the 14th century, the glaze was made out of sand from the Tiber River and potassium from wine kegs.

Back in Spoleto, I think of this as we lunch on LeWitt's "Ricco Deruta" pattern at a table on her raised white patio, which overlooks the family's 17 acres of land. The group eating off what I now know to be very precious plates with a long history includes Carol Huebner; LeWitt's husband, Sol; and the younger of their two daughters, Eva. The talk is of cell phones and soccer championships.

In the wood-beamed white-plaster kitchen, with its old open-hearth oven, lunch is being prepared by Cristina and Mauro Rastelli, the owners of Il Capanno, a Spoleto restaurant. The Rastellis produce everything themselves, including the salami, which comes from their pigs. The meal begins with a fragrant prosciutto, a crumbly local cow's-milk cheese and artichoke bruschetta made on salt-free bread--a holdover from a protest against a 14th-century Pope's tax on salt. Similarly, the pasta course of strangozzi (sometimes known as "strangled priests") recalls this rebellious era, although the dessert of amaretto semifreddo drizzled with chocolate sauce gives the lunch a soothing finale. The meal is eaten off progressively larger Ceramica plates that complement the afternoon butter yellow sun.

Emily Prager, a novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of Roger Fishbite (Random House).

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