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 pottery.
Technically, most of the Italian dinnerware is earthenware, which 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. Red clay, tougher and thicker, is used for the pieces that need to be more resistant to high temperature and daily usages, such as plates, platters, bowls, mugs, and 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.
How is it made?
After the first firing, the biscotto must be dipped into a bath of fast-drying liquid glaze to enable it to hold liquids. When dry, the glazed piece is ready to be hand-painted.
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 and slow-paced way of living, a sense of memory and history, and a creative gesture that gives shape to the imagination.
Italian pottery, the real one I mean, is always handmade.
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 rounded 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. A few 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 paints it. The charcoal burns in the kiln, leaving no trace behind.
Well, if you’re still reading, you must have learned 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!
Both this article and “What are the most popular Italian Dinnerware patterns?” are important learning tools and the owners of Thatsarte are making important contributions to the understanding and the appreciation of handmade products from Italy. You, as a consumer, are making an equally important contribution. Whether or not you realize it you are not merely purchasing plates, cups, saucers and serving pieces that will enhance your dining experience. You are patrons of the art. You are the new generation that allows these artists to continue centuries old traditions. Your appreciation of art and craftsmanship in an age of disposable mass production makes you special and important. The world would have never known the names of DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello or Raphael, if not for such patrons as Medici, Sforza, and the royal families of Europe. Today, you are the artist’s patrons. It is people like yourself that allow such beauty to continue to exist in this modern world.
So, while you may sometimes view yourself as merely another consumer you must stop and realize that you are much more. You are the guardians of tradition and art. You are the protectors of the continuation of art and beauty that otherwise could be lost to the world. The generations that follow will someday thank you for your fine taste, insight and artistic appreciation. As a collector I am merely proud to count myself as one among you.
I was searching through Google doing research for a blog
article, when I found this blog, and while not what I was
exactly looking for I found it very informative and
interesting! I felt it expresses the car, detail and passion put into making hand made dinnerware. A very enjoyable read!
I have some antique plates from Italy dated around 1920’s. If I send you a picture can you dupicate the style and pattern?
Hi there my mom has dishes that are marked with Weizmann porzellan. Made in Italy. But when I goggle this, yours says podotto Italiano. What’s the difference ? Thanks
I found an old, italian coffee cup that appears to be handmade. It has a non-handprinted Saint Pasquale on it. And it has a “N” on the bottom. It looks old. Can you tell me anything about it? I picked it up because my great grandfather was named Pasquale.
Many thanks for getting in touch. Regretfully, we are not professionally trained to identify or pottery and, from the content of your email, you do need someone with professional training.
Best of luck!