Choosing a dinnerware set is no easy matter. Hundreds of different brands, designs, materials to choose from… and such a large amount of money involved in the purchase that a mistake would be much regretted.
Well, I cannot help you to make your choice. However, if you decide to stand out from the crowd and go for something really different and unique such as handmade Italian dinnerware, you’ll find some good pieces of information here.
What is Italian Dinnerware usually made of?
Italian dinnerware sets are usually made of ceramic, a word derived from the Greek word keramos, meaning “clay”. Commonly used, ceramic is a most general term, which can be applied both to porcelain and to pottery.
Technically, most of Italian dinnerware is earthenware, that is a bisque or biscotto fired at low temperatures – 1800° to 2100° Fahrenheit. This is the oldest pottery making craft in history: earthenware pieces have been found that date as far back as 1400-1200 BC.
Italian dinnerware sets, together with serving ware and kitchenware, are usually made of red or white clay. The red clay, tougher and thicker, is used for the pieces that need to be more resistant to high temperature and daily usage, such as plates, platters, bowls, mugs, cups. Serving accessories, like cruets and jars are often made of white clay.
All the glazes and colors used by the artists for their tableware and kitchenware pieces must be lead and cadmium free, in compliance with FDA standards and U.S.A. import regulations. Check this before buying your dinnerware. Reputable dealers always include a 100% food safety mention in their item’s description.
A final firing at 1690° Fahrenheit will make the glaze interact with the metal oxides used by the painter to create the deep and brilliant translucent colors specific to Italian pottery.
To know which clay an Italian pottery piece is made of you needn’t break it… Just turn it upside down. There is always an unglazed area on the bottom, which prevents the piece from sticking to the kiln surface when fired. The clay is clearly visible there.
What does Handmade mean?
This fascinating word is what makes the difference between Art and mass production and it has an intrinsic value to most of us. It evokes a simple yet deep way of life, a sense of memory and history, a creative gesture which gives shape to the imagination.
Italian pottery, the real one I mean, is always hand made.
This means that the potter uses a plain lump of refined clay, throws it on a wheel and makes the shape that will then be painted. The quality of the shape depends on the potter’s ability, on an accurate and natural drying and on the first kiln firing.
Plates are an exception, though. They are usually press molded to obtain perfect shapes. Why? Have you ever seen a heap of handmade plates? It never seems to stand straight because not one dish is like the other. You do not want to pay a lot of money to own plates that are not nicely round and rimmed. Unless you are looking for a special vintage look!
Hand-painted Dinnerware: it does make all the difference!
Have you ever seen an Italian artist hand painting a pottery piece? Oh, it’s amazing.
I’ve personally visited a number of artists’ studios. In all of them I was struck with awe and wonder at their concentrated gestures. No matter how many times they’ve been painting the same design, their brushes always move upon the glaze with the same mixture of certainty and creative thrill.
To be fully aware of the value hidden in a hand-painted Italian pottery piece, you need to know a couple of things.
Potters are not allowed to make mistakes when painting on glazed biscotto. Colors cannot be easily erased without compromising the whole work.
The raw colors seldom match the fired colors. The magnificent blue that was so popular in the Renaissance majolicas – and still is one of my favorite background colors – is actually pale pink before the kiln firing!
It’s the artist’s experience that drives the selection of raw colors when creating a new design.
Still the result of a new color combination is always unpredictable, since each color needs its own firing temperature to achieve its perfect hue. Some degrees more or less can change, sometimes dramatically, the final result.
It’s all about chemical reactions among the various metal oxide colors, the glaze and the temperature. A new dinnerware design usually needs many trials before it actually meets the artist’s creative idea.
How can you make sure you’re buying a hand-painted Italian dinnerware set?
Look at it closely: you must see the brush strokes and the charming imperfection of human artistry (as opposed to machine printing…). Mistrust perfect symmetry and identical details.
One thing you may like to know is that, since pencils are strictly forbidden on the glaze, the more elaborate dinnerware patterns are drawn with a many century-old technique named “spolvero”. The artist outlines the design by dusting powdered charcoal through pinpricks previously made on a thin sheet of paper. Once the design is sketched the artist hand paints it. The charcoal burns in the kiln, leaving no trace behind.
Well, if you’re still reading, you must have learnt a lot about Italian Dinnerware.
Now it’s time to start looking for a pattern that fits your style. Before venturing into the choice, you may wish to take a quick glance at the article “What are the most popular Italian Dinnerware patterns?”. And if I may add one last piece of advice, never compromise on quality!