MAIOLICA ON THE BRINK
By Francine Brevetti
Climbing tendrils, vibrant vegetation, sinuous dragons, and brassy roosters,– all in eyepopping color. These are among the exuberant themes Italian families see emblazoned on their dinner plates, their coffee cups, biscotti jars, and even piggy banks.
Not just Italian families but the tourists who have loved Italy and brought back souvenirs of the tin-glazed earthenware called maiolica.
Sadly, this artistic tradition and its commerce have been gutted by terrorism, global financial upheaval, and the pandemic.
The designs of these ceramics producing families can be over 200 years old and emanate from four generations of tradition. But today the once scores of artisanal families are a mere handful.
That lively artistry has a long and beloved history emanating from Italy’s mountain top villages in regions spanning Venice, Florence, Deruta, Rome, Amalfi, Puglia, Sicily – most prominently. The numerous US ceramics importers have been similarly decimated.
In 2019, the top importers of ceramic tableware were United States ($393M), Germany ($197M), France ($146M), United Kingdom ($144M), and Canada ($109M). according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, www.oec.world. These imports are weighted heavily toward China’s exports. Total US ceramic imports reached US $238 billion that year but these figures include industrial ceramics as well as dinnerware.
Carlo Patacca, a Deruta artisan, supplies the Los Gatos-based Gioia Company, www.gioiacompany.com. He recalled that after WWII Americans began to visit Italy in large numbers. In the 1960's and 70's, they would come with "money falling out of their pockets" and the streets of Deruta would be filled “wall to wall with tourists.” Today, reports, Gioia, the scene is far starker.
Biordi, www.Biordi.com, in San Francisco’s Italian sector, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. When 9/11 catastrophe hit, proprietor Deborah Baldini said the venerable store saw demand fall precipitously.
“We were doing 4-5 times (before 9/11) as much business as we are.”
But Biordi has managed to stay afloat despite the turmoil thanks to the customer base it has built up over the decades, she said.
That disaster precipitated a fall in tourism; and since the major financial crisis of 2008, she sees “fewer and fewer artisans over the years. In Deruta, the hub of Italian ceramics, a fraction of the artists painting today.”
“People quit spending money on dinnerware and décor. Our artisans are thankful to us we have been able to send them orders.”
Claudio Luporini and his family own Bella Ceramica, https://shop.bellaceramica.com, Oakland, Ca. He faults the change in Italy’s currency among the causes for the troubles.
Once euro coins and banknotes were launched on January 1, 2002, the exchange rate initially hovered around 70 to 80 cents to a Euro. The result for Bella Ceramica was “an invoice of €10,000 would cost me US $15,000”, he recalled.
A lot of work had to be done to sustain a switch of that magnitude, he said. Changes in staffing were sadly necessary among all the Californian importers contacted. Now they seek alternate ways to encourage production.
Baldini said Biordi’s sends orders to their artists even before the orders come in at the store.
Kathy Winkelman, principal of Gioia, reports that one of her artists recently wrote that the pandemic has closed the lights in their studio so they can no longer work.
Winkelman created Gioia Luce, a nonprofit program urging customers and prospective customers to support Italian artists and receive a ceramic gift in return.
Her appeal reads:
You will become a part of the Gioia Luce 2020 Program, a Joyful Light when you join us. Imagine the Joy it will bring to have a gift direct from Italy to say “Grazie.” You can send support in levels of $50, $75, $100, and more. This contribution will get them back to work as artists, and you will receive a gift valued at your donation from a region you choose.
Italian Pottery Outlet www.italianpottery.com, in Santa Barbara, Ca, has coped by adjusting its product line, according to its chief Julia Spalluto, emphasizing the lower and upper value items. The middle has been weak. They are also focusing more on their online platform.
While most importers found the pandemic difficult because it drained Italy of tourists, Spalluto saw some benefit to it. “The trend went to more home cooking, but that was great for us, we had a huge boon in sales.”
Gourmet retailers such as Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma, and as well as Amazon have bitten into this traditional craft by selling ceramics that sport decals of traditional designs. In other words, they do not sell the true maiolica.
Maiolica importers forge close ties with their suppliers and visit them in Italy usually yearly. The pandemic made that difficult but this autumn 2021, some are returning to support the artisan families and keep the art alive. Biordi’s Baldini was looking forward to traveling and restoring these ties this autumn, accompanied by its previous proprietor Gianfranco Savio.