Sunday, February 3, 2008

Maiolica Meraviglosa -- Marvelous Majolica

Grazia Ranocchia works in an industry that began in Umbria in the 12th century. We have been friends since the first day I walked into her factory in Deruta in 1997 and bought a teapot, eight cups and saucers and a few other assorted pieces of hand-painted maiolica (majolica) ceramics. Since she meets many of her friends this way, we say Maiolica Originale Deruta is the center of the universe. Grazia's mother and father started with a small studio more than fifty years ago, and now Grazia and her brother, Ivan, supervise more than two dozen painters and artisans whose work is shipped around the world. Their parents still paint some of the most beautiful pieces.

Though he introduced me to maiolica, Piero may wish I had decided to collect something smaller than plates and pitchers and lamps, (tiny Swakorski crystal animals?); but, there is something about the shapes and colors of Italian maiolica that I cannot resist and every new pattern or color combination somehow finds its way into my kitchen, my bathroom, or onto my table. I overheard Piero on the phone the other day asking his sister about ceramics addiction rehab (she is the one who said that my bathroom tile "costa un occhio della testa", an eye of my head), but he really does appreciate the art as much as I do.

Over the eleven years that I've known Grazia, her hair has seemed to change color with the sea
sons -- brick red, blond, dark chestnut, black -- today her medieval bone structure is set off by masses of mahogany curls. Put her in an ermine trimmed tapestry robe and she could easily go back in time to Deruta's early days. Now that she has become assessore (member of the city government) with a economics purview, she is taking a more serious approach to her hair color, as well as the threat to the industry from copycats in Asia and eastern Europe.

This is a compelling issue, not only to the ceramics industry in Umbria, but also to other segments of the Italian market, such as fabrics and food products whose names reflect their history and quality. These industries have sought DOP (denominazione di origine protetta -- protected origin) status for their products from the EU and include parmesan cheese, olive oils, balsamic vinegar and other products from certain areas. Officially, DOP means that the entire production process, including the supplying of the raw materials, takes place within a small, defined geographical area, in which a clear and specific relationship between the product and the geographical zone is determined according to precise standards. In addition, there is government pressure for a standard mark "Made in Italy," to be applied to all domestically produced products.

In Deruta, where the streets are lined with factories and artists' studios, this is a life or death issue, affecting almost the entire population of a town where art, history and business have been inevitably intertwined for close to a thousand years. Even here, there are a few short-term profiteers who think that putting "Hand Painted in Deruta" on the bottom of a dish can disguise work done in Romania or elsewhere, and City Hall will impose regulations to stop them. Worse, there are entire factories in Asia where Deruta-style ceramics are produced on an assembly line basis, resulting in shoddy workmanship to be sold in the US and elsewhere under an Italian name. Still, in Deruta, it is possible to wander into a workroom and see the production of a vase as it moves from the hands of the potter to the painters to the kiln.

The Swiss watch industry faced a similar crisis in the early 1980s, when Japanese copies of Swiss designs, produced with innovative quartz movements, flooded the market. The Swiss' response was the Swatch (Swiss watch), which offered design, quality and technology at a low price point. Some Italians in the fine fabric and ceramics businesses have chosen to move up market, to a level where it is difficult to copy intricate designs and expensive technologies and time will tell how that will work.

That said, how many illegal copycat purses are sold and how many of us are buying them? Are fashion designers' high prices pushing women into the arms of street vendors now that we know that some high profile names also manufacture their purses in China? These are questions that not only affect the ebb and flow of fad and fashion, but the artistic output of centuries and the lifeblood of small towns and villages around Italy.
copyright 2008 Sharri Whiting Umbria Bella

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