Montelupo and all the ceramic manufacturing centres of the Florentine
area had a particular role in the history of Italian ceramics and
obviously differ from the other workshops in Tuscany and also from the
rest of Italy.
Between the 14th and 15th centuries they were at the head of a fictile
quality- innovation, even if they started out late. No detailed examples
have been found of an indisputable “Florentine” production before the
end of the 14th century.
This delayed acquisition of new technologies which was to lead to a
national ceramic renaissance, is even more evident if compared to the
complex and progressive picture which emerges from archaeological
findings from other areas in regions like Pisa and Siena.
can be chronologically placed in the first half of the 13th century, and
testify not only to the circulation of glazed ceramics or decorations
which were unknown in Florence, but also to the handling of maiolica
which had started at least forty years before it got under way in this
The ‘delay’ in Florence and its territory — the area which was the
object of this city’s early expansion, called “Contado” (rural area
around the city) — restrained the advance of more aesthetic and
functional ceramics. This seems to give weight to the words of Dante
Alighieri (born 1266) who, when speaking of the city of his ancestors,
said that he missed the simplicity of Florentine customs, which he
believed to be modest and even ‘rustic’.
Leaving aside the poet’s bitter opinion of his city, owing to his
personal experiences which no doubt lead him to long for the “good old
days”, the gap evinced in the circulation of “modern” ceramic production
— also noticeable in other aspects of daily life and customs — between
the coastal area (cities like Pisa, and the Florentine territory, at the
foot of the Apennines) is not completely unexpected. It is, in fact,
obvious that maritime areas — after the late Middle Ages — which had
always been in contact with the East, were the first to receive not only
merchandise but also more modern products which, in our case, would have
stimulated the local clay workers.
|| Portolano del
Mediterraneo, XVII secolo
Venezia, Museo storico navale
It is not mere chance, therefore, that these kinds of crafts, on
the same standing to ceramics, developed along the opposite coast
of the Mediterranean and in other Islamic countries, which
increasingly traded with Italian coastal towns. This is true, for
example, of the leather tanning process (one thinks of “maroquin”
or “cordovans” ) which had an elite position in 13th century
Nonetheless, in the city of the Crusades, there was a period of ceramic
decoration well before the “archaic maiolica” phase. One is well aware
of how the so called “proto-maiolica” period, beginning at the end of
the 12th century, was tied to maritime ports and to the areas trading
overseas, like Savona, Gela and Brindisi. The same can, obviously, be
said for the spread of the contemporary “Tyhrrenian graffiti”.
intensity of trade in ceramics (not always of good quality) between the
Pisan Port and the Eastern Mediterranean countries — as well as with
North Africa, Maghreb and Moorish Spain — together with various other
kinds of imported merchandise, is discernible in the phenomenon of
“bowls”, inserted in the walls of churches in Pisa. These specimens are
the most outstanding examples of decorated ceramics which circulated in
the Mediterranean area during the period going from the beginning of the
11th century and the first half of the 12th century.
Archaeological excavations have also proven that the circulation in Pisa
of these imported objects — some even with lids — were not simply used
for architectural insertions. None of this was found in the Florentine
area of that period, irrespective of the fact that imported ceramics
from different parts of the Mediterranean did circulate, at least until
the end of the 13th century.
a historical-geographical point of view it is, therefore, comprehensible
that the imitiation of quality glazed or “ingobbiata” (under glazing)
products came sooner in coastal towns. These towns involved in trading
with the more ‘advanced’ Islamic countries, came to imitate their
characteristics. Yet, the chronological discordance between the
Florentine area and other internal parts of Tuscany, geographically
further away from the coast is, nonetheless, surprising.
The oldest recordings of “archaic maiolica” found in Montalcino, in the
Senese area, and inserted into an architectural context (the vaults of
the ‘Commune’ ) date from around 1220 to 1250, an earlier period to the
similar examples found in the Florentine area.
late beginnings of ceramic craftsmanship which can be seen from findings
in Florence (Piazza della Signoria, St Reparata and generally the urban
area of the city, as well as in the Palazzo Pretorio in Prato, and more
recently in the Palazzo dei Vescovi, in Pistoia), or from the
manufacturing areas of Montelupo and Bacchereto, show that this
production was not aligned to the growth of the city of the “lily” in
the period going from 1180-1250. This is confirmed by the fact that
Florence was the first city in Europe to coin gold in 1252.
well as economic factors, the geographical setting of Florence explains
the lateness of Florentine production of glazed ceramics, which
archaeological excavations have given light to. The reason for this will
have to be unravelled by analysing the social and cultural problematic
of the ruling class and of the population which was fast growing in 12th
and 13th century Florence. Obviously, aristocratic citizens were not
deprived of luxury objects, as Dante Alighieri would have liked. This
would have been confirmed with the restitution of the water wells of the
turris maior (major towers) belonging to the Uberti family in Piazza
della Signoria, and, even more credibly — from the archaeological
findings — a widespread use of luxury ceramics of a different nature.
integral publication of the Mediaeval documentation which has come out
of the Florentine subterranean might give an answer but, to date,
scholars remain on hypothetical ground.