Arlecchino Fine Arts - Ceramics of Sicily


Sicilian majolica

 

 

The ceramics of Sicily that date from the period directly following Roman domination, clearly demonstrate the presence on the island of two distinct cultures: one being the dominant class whose ceramics show the influence of foreign cultures, and the other the dominated class whose ceramics have mainly native characteristics. The emergence of this second class, and the particular historical conditions that gave rise to this, is also demonstrated.

This immediate post-Roman period was one of economic and social crisis, even in art, where old formalised systems were being replaced by other ways which, although compared to what they replaced were new, were not new within the context of the local culture prior to Roman domination. It can be deduced that there was an alternative figurative culture, even during the classic age, that has survived throughout history and up until nearly modern times.

The period of Islamic domination caused such cultural upheaval throughout Sicily, that the true permanence of some previously assumed constants was put into question. While this was certainly happening, it is even more interesting to see how the ceramics produced over this period, reflect a non-colonial way of life in Sicily during the days of the Arab-Berber civilisation; in this way the study of ceramics takes on a particularly profound historical value. Unlike what happened in other centuries, during this period, Sicily does not seem to have been a marketplace for the goods of other Mediterranean centres that were more technologically advanced. This can be seen in the developments made by the island's ceramic industry – the case of Caltagirone is exemplary - and in the quality of their products, thanks to the fact that the revolutionary technique of glazing was adopted and assimilated immediately by the island's craftsmen.

Here we come up against the untrue cliché that claims all Sicilian culture originated from outside the island, and particularly from mainland Italy. This is no less false than the opposite hypothesis which holds that nearly everything was born in Sicily, from the "vulgar" (see Dante) to the eccentric (see D'Ancona). According to these clichés, the technique of glazing, whose wide diffusion seems to have been caused by the Arabs, came to Sicily from Italy. It is, however, obvious that the opposite is true. This is not to say that Sicilian ceramics owe nothing to Italian ceramics, indeed, such a technological development indicates the existence of close links between the two, which can, in fact, be deduced from the evidence. Sicilian ceramics of the Renaissance, with the clear Italian influences that they show (influences that are both imitative and developmental), document one of the most significant constants of Sicilian culture: its ability to assimilate disparate influences without losing its own unique characteristics. There are, however, certainly moments when this uniqueness seems to become diluted to the point of disappearing. For example, there was a very dominating Neapolitan influence in the ceramics sector during the 19th century. However, when traditional Sicilian culture seems to disappear, in ceramics as in other sectors, all you have to do is look a little more carefully or widen your field of vision to find areas where it continues to live and develop; not crystallised in history but proceeding along to its own sometimes hidden route. This is particularly evident at the level of popular culture, that is, at the level of ceramics for domestic use, where the practical use to which each item was destined, conditioned the nature of production, and demanded that all new developments were experimented with, fine-tuned and selected in order to satisfy the needs of the product's final user. From this, it is a short step to deducing the existence of a vein of culture that was closed off from any external influence and arrested in the repetition of established traditional techniques. In fact, even on this popular level, Sicilian culture has not overlooked and has assimilated the new, but, obviously, only when to do so did not obstruct the manufacture of items that were of practical use to the island's lower classes.

Functionality affected decisions about both form and decoration. Contrary to what one might expect, decoration was so formalised that today it makes a good area of research, for those who want to study the symbolic significance of decoration. This is a new development in the figurative study of facts. Decoration has always been studied as though it was significant but had no meaning other than that of the attractiveness of its colours. However, it is to be emphasised that the structural morphology of decoration connects the meanings of the decoration to the uses of the elements from which the product is made. It is also to be considered that decoration transmits messages. Not so much the generic and obvious messages that are implicit in their nature as symbols of a certain social condition, but rather messages that are more concrete even though less easily exploitable. All of this becomes clear from a careful observation of Sicilian, and other, ceramics in the 16th to 18th centuries. Although the selection of designs seems to be motivated by matters of taste, in reality the contrary is true, with most decoration being made on the basis of concrete needs. The need of aristocratic families, to emphasise their own, often recent, nobility through the use of family crests; the necessity for religious orders and institutes to publicise themselves through images of their saints; the needs of both to assert their rights of ownership through the so-called mattonelle di censo (tiles of wealth). In this way, ceramic decoration stands, as illustrative documentation, alongside written documentation that reflects the same celebratory and promotional class interests.

(from "La maiolica siciliana dalle origini all'ottocento", by Antonino Ragona, introduction by A. Buttitta, Sellerio publisher, Palermo 1975).

 

 

Ceramics of Sicily

 

 

 

 

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Albarello
"Albarello"
XVII century
Palermo

 

Vase
XVII century
Palermo

 

Albarello
"Albarello"
XVII century
Trapani

 

Vase
XVI century
Palermo

 

wall brick
wall brick
Caltagirone, 1788

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