A Quick Guide to Handmade Italian Dinnerware

The artistry of handmade Italian dinnerware explained

Selecting the perfect dinnerware set requires careful consideration. With so many options in terms of brands, designs, and materials, and considering the cost involved, the task can be daunting.
If one of the options you are considering is purchasing hand-painted Italian dinner plates, I can definitely give you the lowdown.

A table set with the Raffaellesco Blu dinnerware by L'Antica Deruta. Handmade in Deruta, Italy

The craftsmanship unveiled: how is Italian dinnerware made

Italian dinnerware sets are usually crafted from ceramic, a word that comes from the Greek term “keramos,” which means “clay.” Ceramic covers a range of materials, including porcelain and pottery. Most Italian dinnerware is made from earthenware fired at temperatures around 1800°F to 2100°F. This tradition goes way back – there’s evidence of earthenware pieces dating back to 1400-1200 BC.

A stack of unglazed sugar bowls in a Deruta artisan workshop

Italian artists and artisans work with red or white clay. The sturdier red clay is used for pieces that need to handle high temperatures and everyday use, like dinner plates, platters, serving bowls, mugs, and cups. On the other hand, white clay is reserved for serving accessories such as cruets and jars.

Bottom of a hand-painted Deruta dinner plate with Ricciarelli's signature. The unglazed area on the bottom of a ceramic piece helps identify the type of clay used by the ceramicist

If you own an Italian ceramic and wish to know if it’s made of white or red clay, just flip the piece over. You’ll find a small area left unglazed to prevent the piece from sticking to the kiln surface during the firing. The clay is clearly visible there.

A Deruta artisan's desk with ceramic glazes and brushes

All the glazes and colors used by the artists for their tableware and kitchenware are lead and cadmium free, meeting FDA standards and U.S. import regulations. Trustworthy sellers always make a point to mention 100% food safety in the item descriptions.

A Deruta artisan is dipping the unglazed ceramic mug in liquid glaze

After the first firing, the artisan dips the biscotto (unglazed red or white clay) in liquid glaze. This process seals the biscotto’s pores, allowing it to hold liquids. Once the piece dries, it’s ready to be transformed for hand-painting.

Kiln-fired Deruta ceramics ready to exit the kiln and delight customers around the world.

After the decoration, a final firing at 1690°F brings the glaze and metal oxides together, creating the stunning, vibrant colors that are the hallmark of Italian pottery.

The art of being handmade

Handmade is the opposite of machine-made or mass-produced.
The essence and intrinsic value of Italian pottery lies in its being handmade. The word conjures images of a slower, more deliberate pace, a connection to heritage and gestures that give form to imagination.
Potters work with refined clay, shaping it with their hands or on a wheel to create beautiful pieces. The quality of the result depends on the potter’s skills, proper drying, and a slow kiln firing.

A Deruta ceramic artisan is working at the wheel.

Dinner plates are a bit of an exception – they’re often press-molded to make sure they’re perfectly shaped and sit evenly on the table.

The elegance of brushwork in hand-painted Italian dinnerware

Picture an Italian artist delicately painting a pottery piece – a mesmerizing spectacle that captures the essence of hand-painted elegance. I visited several artists’ studios, and I cannot stop marveling. No matter how many times they’ve painted the same design, their brushwork is always infused with the excitement of creation.

To truly appreciate hand-painted Italian pottery, you need to know a few facts.

The first one is that painters can’t afford mistakes – brushstrokes cannot be erased, and in most cases, an error results in the piece’s disposal.

Also, glazes are wild things. The colors you see before firing won’t be the same afterward. That stunning blue from Renaissance majolicas? It’s actually pale pink before firing.
Every color needs a specific firing temperature for the perfect shade, and a slight variation can make a big difference – a surprising revelation that speaks to the alchemy of the craft.

The artist’s talents then must go hand in hand with hard-earned experience. Chemical reactions, metal oxides, glazes, and temperature – they all come together in a dance that can be hard to predict. New designs often need lots of trial and error before they match the artist’s vision.

The signature of authenticity: validating Italian pottery

How can you ensure you’re buying an authentic hand-painted Italian dinnerware set?
Authentic craftsmanship bears the captivating imperfections that define human artistry– you can see the brushwork and the little imperfections that show it’s handcrafted, not churned out by machines. Slight differences in symmetry and details are part of the charm.

However, beware of dinnerware sets that have identical “imperfections” across a number of pieces, such as dinner plates. It’s a sign of decal: a hand-painted design is transferred on a rubber support which is then used to print ceramic tableware. Decals make for a cheaper production process. We do not consider decal ceramics to be authentic Italian craftsmanship.

A Deruta ceramic artisan is using the "spolvero" on a dinner plate before starting painting

Fun fact: as pencils are strictly forbidden on the glaze, the more intricate dinnerware patterns are often sketched on the ceramic surface using a technique called “spolvero.” The artists carefully draw the design on a sheet of special paper, then poke tiny holes in its outlines. Having set the paper on the item, they dust charcoal through the pinpricks. The resulting sketch helps the brushwork. The charcoal disappears in the kiln’s heat, leaving behind art free from pencil marks.

If you’ve journeyed with me this far, you’ve unearthed a wealth of insight into Italian dinnerware. Armed with knowledge, you can now hunt for a pattern that resonates with your style. If you need a bit more inspiration, you may want to take a quick glance at the article “What are the most popular Italian Dinnerware patterns?”.

A table set with a Pardi Damasco tablecloth, the Limoni dinnerware and the Primizia mug. All the ceramics are handmade in Deruta, Italy.

And remember… Don’t compromise on quality. A choice well-made brings joy, while a misstep can lead to years of regret. If you wish to elevate your dining experience, the uniqueness and elegance of Italian craftsmanship and art have no equals.

6 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Handmade Italian Dinnerware

  1. Hello Nan,
    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!

  2. Hello,
    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.

  3. 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

  4. I have some antique plates from Italy dated around 1920’s. If I send you a picture can you dupicate the style and pattern?

  5. 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!

    Leanne x

  6. 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.

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