Saturday, November 12, 2011


My mum is a born super sleuth and shopper, one of her many fortes is finding very cool shops wherever she is around the world.  Cutting edge or artisanal, she’ll suss it out!  Every time she comes to Florence she discovers a new gem. A few years ago she discovered my now favourite little ceramic shop.

Located around the corner from the Accademia gallery, ‘La botteghina del Ceramista’ in via Guelfa 5/r is run by Daniela, having taken over from her father who opened the shop some decades ago. She sells ceramics from Montelupo in Tuscany and Deruta in Umbria, personally buying direct from the artist/artisans in both areas whom she has known now for years. Montelupo products are largely displayed on the left wall of her shop and the Deruta ceramics on the right. The decorative styles are different from each place. Montelupo ceramics are made in the eponymous little town, Montelupo Fiorentino, located circa twenty-five kilometers from Florence. 

Deruta ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Deruta ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista
Montelupo ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Montelupo ceramics from La Botteghina del Ceramista

Ceramic production began in this area in the thirteenth century. The town local ceramic export, under the territorial control of the Republic of Florence, greatly increased after Florentine conquest of Pisa, with the opening up of the sea route. This, coupled with the strong backing from local Florentine wealthy merchant families such as the Antinori, encouraged production which reached a peak between 1450 and 1530. 

Antique maiolica pot from Montelupo

The hill top town of Deruta (featuring in the list of the ‘borghi più belli dell’Italia) is a town close to Perugia in the region of Umbria.

Ceramics were not only used as sturdy and aesthetically pleasing table ware but also as interior and exterior decoration for architecture, the cheaper and more malleable version to marble.

A tin-glaze was applied to the earthenware base which created a white glossy opaque base on which designs and images could be applied. The tin glaze is a clear lead glaze to which tin oxide is added in a ratio of apporximately 1:3. First used in the Middle East, the technique was brought to Europe by the Moors in the Spanish area. With the influx of the Hispanic Moorish produced ceramics to Italy, both these original imports and the copied local work in technique and decoration, was dubbed Maiolica after the island Maiorca.

An over glaze was sometimes added which resulted in a brilliant shine and iridescence produced by the metallic oxides. The object was given a second firing at a low temperature in a ‘muffle kiln’ (reduction kiln) which excludes oxygen.

Luca della Robbia, a sculptor and contemporary to Donatello in the first half of the fifteenth century, transformed the tin-glaze terracotta technique into a viable alternative to marble sculpture. He created a large and efficient family workshop in Florence and worked not only for the most important families of Florence, the Repubblic, but his fame spread far and wide to the countryside and other cities in central Italy. One can admire the della Robbia works all over Florence; on the exterior of the Orsanmichele church, in the atrium inside the Pazzi chapel in Santa Croce, inside the Santa Trinita church, the Santi Apostoli church and the cathedral, the Foundling hospital and numerous examples in the Bargello National sculpture museum. His workshop was continued by his nephew Andrea, after his death, and Giovanni, Andrea’s son, after him. So diffused was their work, that their surname has become synonymous with tin-glazed ceramics.

Ceiling of the chapel of the the Portuguese cardinal in San miniato al Monte church showing the four cardinal virtues with the holy spirit in the middle by Luca della Robbia

Ceiling of the Pazzi Chapel in the Santa Croce church (courtesy of Becky Reid).
Resurrection of Christ by Luca della Robbia - the lunette above one of the two sacristies in the cathedral.
In the family homes of those who could afford to do so, it was customary to have a Madonna and child in every room of the house by the fifteenth century. This, and the downturn in the birth rate and thus a concerted push to encourage family life and procreation, led to a boom in workshop production of Madonnas and child as the perfect incarnation of the family and Christian devotion.

Luca della Robbia was much acclaimed for the classicizing calm and serenity infused in his Madonnas, and the ability to capture a real child’s playfulness, while still retaining a certain nobility. The della Robbias had their workshop in the same street as Daniela's shop, in via Guelfa.

Madonna and Child by Luca della Robbia, Orsanmichele
The Medici family created a ceramic workshop at Caffaggiolo, their villa estate circa 20km from Florence. The villa was decorated by tin-glazed ceramic tiles by Luca della Robbia, and on-site they created their own production of objects and table ware. Not much is known about this manufacture as they never produced any for commercial use, only for their own pleasure and for gifts.

By the sixteenth century, the technique was highly sophisticated and mythological and religious scenes were painted onto plates, serving dishes and table tops.

Some common terms explained:

Terracotta (trans: baked earth) is unglazed ceramic. It can also be used to describe glazed ceramic when the body is porous and red. It is often used for figurines or objects that have not been made on a potter’s wheel, which is then often referred to as pottery. The word ceramic comes from the Greek, meaning ‘of pottery’, and is usually referred to as terracotta having been fired and glazed.

The term maiolica was in use from the medieval period for earthenware with designs that resembled the imported Spanish ceramic from the area of Maiorca. It then became the name used only for lustreware, referring to both Spanish imports or local products. Lustreware is ceramic with a metallic glaze that gives an effect of iridescence produced by metal oxides in an over glaze finish produced by a second firing at a lower temperature in a reduction kiln which excludes oxygen. Tin-glaze ware was called bianchi (or white-ware) resulting from the first firing. Later, the term maiolica was used for any tin glazed earthenware, lustred or not.

Faience is the English word often used to describe tin-glaze terracotta. It originates from the name of the town Faenza (in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna) known also for their ceramics.

Ceramic shops in Florence that I like:

La bottegista del via Guelfa –, via Guelfa 5/r

Sbigoli -, via Sant’Egidio, 4/r


  1. Fabulous blog Freya! I've been collecting Deruta & Montelupo ceramics for years - all their designs are beautiful. I'd love to have a kitchen floor, or a large table made with their tiles..... It was interesting to read about their history and about how they're glazed. And La Bottegista del via Guelfa is a favourite of mine too!

  2. Great Freya!
    Was In Deruta about ten years ago and just stayed in an agritourism very close to Montelupo Fiorentino in September. I loved both and their amazing maiolica. If you ever go out to Montelupo make sure to drop into Vezzosi Bar and Pasticceria- divine bite-size pastries !
    Ann C