Exploring Italian Ceramics on the Amalfi Coast of Italy

The three of us were sitting on two 125cc scooters on the Island of Capri, off the southern coast of Italy.  The day was a nice, early spring day; a little cool, a slight breeze, and a little overcast with a low cloud overhang.   My wife Pia, my son Vincent and I were set on seeing the island of Capri on scooters.  We had rented scooters on another occasion at a Honduran island and that had turned out to be a very fun way to buzz around and see things.

This time, it was not so easy.  When we walked into the rental shop, the first question the shop owner asked is, “…do you ride scooters everyday?” And then, “….have you driven scooters in Europe?”  We looked like a family from the States I guess.   The owner was an old “silver back” Italian, probably mid 60’s in age with lots of bushy grey hair and a large bulbous, red nose.  His eyes were sort of watery also.  But he was very friendly and rambunctious.  His questions were easy for me to answer because I regularly drive a scooter in Sevilla, Spain, where the traffic and rules are pretty fast and loose.  The questions caught Pia off guard though.  She could have easily said yes, but then that wouldn’t actually be the truth.  So she hemmed and hawed, saying that she hadn’t drove a scooter for some time.  Pia does not regularly drive a scooter.   Still, scooters are not difficult to drive and we thought if we could get out the door with the scooters, my son Vincent could take over and we would zip around.

The Italians kept after Pia though.  Pia is a very honest person and she was evasive in her answers so she wouldn’t have to say something that wasn’t true.  As we were almost on the way, the shop assistant was still after Pia and her experience (in a nice way).  While Vincent and I were sitting on one scooter, I saw a scooter start down the hill in front of us.  And a bus barreled by us in a cloud of blue smoke, headed up the hill.  I watched the scooter driver slip over to the side of the road, almost against the wall of the apartment building to allow the bus to rumble by.  At that point, I imagined Pia bumping the wall and falling in front of the bus and it became clear.  We should not be on these scooters.  These Italians were serious!… this is no place for a scooter rookie.  I don’t know what we were thinking.  I said, ..”Pia, lets explore on foot, by bus or taxi.  Let’s skip this scooter thing”.  She was frustrated but said okay, and we climbed off.  The bushy haired silver back blistered our hides with Italian profanities as we walked away down the hill.  But I felt good, because we definitely had a better chance of surviving and enjoying the day.  I admit, as I climb north of 50 years old, I am losing my belief that I am invincible.

We had fun exploring the cities of Capri and Ana Capri.  We rode a funicular and chair lift and we looked over 1000 feet drops from our bus seats to the sound of scratchy brakes and grinding gear boxes.  We each enjoyed a water buffalo mozzarella cheese and tomato sandwich, seated at the highest point on the island.  And we enjoyed several nice walks through the local flora and the cities back streets and plazas.  All in all, it was a very nice day, and then we took the ferry back to the mainland at Positano

Positano Italy
Positano, Italy as the Sun goes down.

The Amalfi Coast is located a little south of Naples on the west coast of Italy.  The villages along the coast are very picturesque with many of the houses appearing to hang off of cliffs.  The stairs and narrow streets in the villages make walking and driving very demanding.  The coast has many very nice hotels, restaurants and tours available for visitors.  It is a very popular place to visit and has been a coveted destination for decades.

In addition to the natural splendor and old, ad-hock villages, one of the draws of the coast is the ceramics that is produced there.  Working with ceramics, I am always ready to clatter around in pottery stores and exhibit rooms of factories.  First, I have to say that I found the Italian ceramics beautiful.    Since I work a lot with hand painted Spanish pottery, I have learned to appreciate details, colors and designs.   I understand a lot about how the ceramics are made so I love seeing new genres.  I have heard a lot about Italian ceramics, but never had to chance to see a lot of it – from the most simple and crude designs to the most intricate, complicated.

Lemon plates hand painted from Italy
Lemons and Grapes – Italian ceramics

On the Amalfi Coast two themes are very strong – lemons and grapes.  In every shop there were iterations of yellow lemons and purple bunches of grapes.  Both very nice design fundaments, but also very strong.  The colors are very intense in the ceramics, and the designs and contrasts very bold and fun.    Negative space is used very well to focus the eye on the main design of each piece.

In the small village where we lodged (Positano), probably half of the high end tourists shops carried pottery and there were several “factory outlet” stores.  On the road south from Positano in direction of Amalfi, there were several pit stops along side the highway where very large ceramic stores were built into niches of the cliffs.  Driving by during the day you would always encounter buses stopped and tourists crossing the highway to enter into the stores.  It must be a good business right?  Jokingly, I would guess that half of the gross revenue on this coast is generated by pottery, from the number of shops.  I know that is not correct, but still, it must be a good business or all the stores would not be there.

Italy hand painted ceramics - Bacchus
Bacchus – the God of Wine

I asked a lot of questions trying to learn about the hand painted ceramics.  First, you will find that every shop owner says that the pieces that they offer are produced by “their factory and painting team”.  Also, the number 11 seemed to be the magic number for their painting team.  I was surprised at how many times shop owners told me their team consisted of 11 members.  After examining many pieces of ceramics and noting the names on the back, I am pretty certain that there is a loose association of artists that are tapped to fill the shop shelves.  There are a few factories but I believe the majority of the painting is done in small workshops or studios.  I learned that over the past couple of years, the ceramic factories have had it pretty tough because of a 50% tax on the value of the painting labor paid.  So if a factory paid a painter 2000 euros a month to paint, the total cost would actually be 3000 euros, not counting the social security and health contributions.  I don’t know if I have this completely correct, but the shop owner made it clear that the factories had lost a lot of ground over the last few years.

In the States, there has been a move by companies to contract services as 1099-MISC help, leaving the contracted person to pay their own taxes and health care costs.  I would imagine the high tax on the factories pushed a lot of the painters out on their own, and the business into small painting shops instead of places of organized production.  This is all just a guess.

I also learned that the Italian government has implemented a new program, which allows factories to not pay the tax for 3 years, to help them get back on their feet.  It will be interesting to see if this helps the larger production capacity factories to recover economically.

Italian Ceramics - sometimes scary prices!
Scared of the prices of hand painted Italian ceramics.

The thing that shocked me the most, where ever I went were the prices.  Incredible!

I am amazed that they are able to sell their ceramics at the prices that are marked.  The ceramics are beautiful and the artisans deserve everything they can get, but I wonder what sort of mark-up is put on the ceramics before they hit the shelves.  Since I have had a lot of opportunity to watch artisans paint and I know what is required for complicated designs, I have an idea the time required for an artist to paint a design.  I understand the use of patterns and how designs are “duplicated”.  Several times I was told the design would take a painter “days to paint”, when I know it is a matter of minutes not hours – in many of the cases.  The shop owners were very liberal with their estimates on the painting time required, which works in well with the high price.

In one conversation after I was given an estimate of days for the painting of a table, I went into detail about how the pattern might be applied before an artisan would begin painting and how long it might actually take to paint something.  The young man became a tad bit defensive saying the Italian painters only paint 6 hours a day, and they are not like the Chinese.

I want to be straight,…I am not for low prices at all.  I think that hand painted ceramics should command a premium and outstanding ceramics should be expensive.  I wish everyone appreciated and purchased hand painted pottery.  But, I was just generally blown away by the difference in the retail cost of Italian ceramics versus the Spanish ceramics.  In Spain, the artisans paint different designs but there are many artists that are equally talented as their Italian counterparts, and the prices in Spain are half or even a third of the price for the same quality of Italian piece.

Recently, I had a chat with a Spanish compadre that works/manages one of the tile factories near Sevilla.  He said that one thing the Italians are outstanding at is developing designs.  He was clear that some of the most creative designers are in Italy.  He also said that the Italians are good at marketing and an example he gave is that they buy Spanish olive oil by the bulk, bottle it in half and quarter litre bottles with a pretty label and sell them for a pound (lb) of money.

I collected a bunch of information that I hope I have an opportunity to use.  I would love to offer Italian ceramics at the Cactus Canyon Ceramics webstore.  I don’t know if it would float though – side by side with Spanish hand painted pottery.  But I will definitely mull it over and look for more opportunities to explore and learn about Italian ceramics.

I need to say that I was lucky enough to  do a lot more than visit ceramic stores on the Amalfi Coast.  Pia’s Dad (Rodrigo) invited us to Italy for the visit and we bumped around in a van for 10 days visiting villas, museums, Roman ruins and village markets.

Last word is …. I love Italian ceramics!  They are beautiful, if a little bit or a lot more pricey than Spanish ceramics.  Oh…  another thing I should admit is that I love Italian pizza!IMG_6237

Thanks for reading.  Please feel free to share your comments and observations.

Steve

Cactus Canyon Ceramics

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