Italian ceramics, or Italian pottery, have been in my life for quite a long time: I collect them, I read about them, I sell them.
In Italian, when I say ceramica, everybody understands what I mean. On the contrary, when I talk with one of my American friends, I’m always uncertain: should I say Italian pottery, Italian ceramics or Italian majolica?
In order to do away with any doubt, I did some research. I did learn quite a lot on the subject, and I would love to share my findings with you.
Let’s start with technicalities.
Here is a short review of the definition of the words Ceramics, Pottery and Majolica.
Once we know exactly what we are talking about, we will define what they really mean to people.
Ceramic is the most general term. It is derived from the Greek word keramos, meaning “clay”.
Historically, ceramics were prepared by shaping clay, decorating it, often glazing and firing it at high temperatures in a kiln. However, this definition has changed. The term ceramics now refers to a diverse group of materials, including types of cement and glass. While all are fired at high temperatures, clay is no longer a key component of ceramics.
That is why, nowadays, the category ceramics technically includes both pottery and porcelain, which, with their standard formulas, have come to popularly represent quality grades.
Pottery is an ornamental or functional ware shaped from moist clay and hardened by heat. The type of clay used and the temperature at which it is fired give pottery a different appearance and strength.
There are three major pottery types.
It is also known as bisque or biscuit, and it is fired at low temperatures – 1800° to 2100° Fahrenheit. It is usually reddish or white. Due to its high porosity, earthenware must usually be glazed to enable it to hold water or any liquid.
Earthenware pieces have been found that date back to 1400-1200 BC, making this craft the oldest pottery in history.
It is made of a heavier clay mixture, which can be fired at much higher temperatures – 2200° to 2400° Fahrenheit. It is dense, impermeable and hard enough to resist scratching by a steel point. It’s brownish gray, and it can be used both blazed and unglazed. Ideal for cooking and baking.
It’s made of a specific clay, containing kaolinite, and it is fired at high temperatures – 2200° to 2500° Fahrenheit. It is hard, impermeable (even before glazing), white, translucent and resonant.
Majolica – also spelled Maiolica – is the beautiful ware prepared by tin-glazing earthenware and firing it a second time.
After the first firing, the bisque is dipped into a bath of fast-drying liquid glaze. 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 majolica.
This technique originated in the Middle East in the 9th century. By the 13th century, majolica ware was imported into Italy through the Isle of Majorca, the headquarters of the trade between Spain and Italy. The Italians called it Maiolica, erroneously thinking it was made in Majorca. They were fascinated by this new way of making ceramics and soon started to copy the process, adapting it to their own creativity and traditions. The rise of Italian majolica in Europe was fast and reached its peak of artistic quality throughout central Italy during the Renaissance – late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Now I know that I collect and sell pottery, specifically earthenware, mostly Italian majolica.
The original question is still unanswered, though. I still do not know what I should call my beloved ware when talking to my American friends.
Having rejected the use of Earthenware, because the word is by far too technical, I tested using the term Italian majolica. Only museum staff or experts understood what I meant, and many of them figured I was talking about istoriato Renaissance ware, while I had in mind modern Italian majolica pieces.
As the next step, I tested the phrase Italian pottery. The result was good, everybody knew I was talking about clay ware in the shape of an Italian bowl, an Italian vase or an Italian dinnerware set. I was not satisfied, though. Pottery is any kind of ware shaped from moist clay and hardened by heat. Pottery can be used for a $20 chicken cooking pot as well as a $2000 Italian istoriato wall plate.
How could I convey both the technical process behind Italian pottery as well as its unique quality and beauty?
I tested the term Italian ceramics, and it worked perfectly. Exploring my Customers’ and friends’ reactions, I found out that it actually conveyed high quality and included both dinnerware and ornamental ware.
There is a historical explanation for this.
Although “Ceramics” is – nowadays and in purely technical language and a more general term than pottery, it has been used for more than 3000 years in the countries where this craft was born and evolved into a form of art.
Italy is one of those countries: we proudly handcrafted some of the finest ceramics in the history of this art. Italian ceramics include the Etruscan “bucchero”, the Renaissance majolica and lusterware, the Baroque tiles from Sicily, the “zaffera” from central Italy, the contemporary clay art…
When we say Italian ceramics, we mean much more than items made of clay, earthenware or majolica. These two words embody artistic heritage, history, regional traditions, and the creativity of a people. They touch a chord in our souls. That’s probably why so many people are passionate about Italian ceramics.
Like you and me.
Article posted on Dec. 20th, 2007, updated on May 23rd, 2019