The excellence of handicraft
curated by C. Caneva and L. Casprini Gentile

The section displays a series of earthenware objects for every day and ornamental use. Some are original while others are reproduced from ancient models, all of them attesting not only to the skill of the kiln workers in creating, from a fragile material, artefacts that withstand wear and tear, but above all to the various styles of the different ages as well as to the most successful lines of production.

Garden Furnishings

Despite the intrinsic fragility of the material and the extensive use they have been subjected to over time, the terracotta pots, basins and decorations still present in parks and historical gardens can give us an idea of the extraordinary skill of Impruneta’s kilnmen who have been devoted from time immemorial to the manufacture of such objects. The pots, which stand up very well to wear and tear and to intense cold thanks to the characteristics of the marl with which they are made, mirror the tastes of different epochs in their shapes and especially in their decoration.

When in the 15th century the garden acquired an architectural structure which characterized it as an ideal continuation of the building to which it was annexed, terracotta pots and decorations were introduced together with collections of archaeological finds, to create an exquisitely “humanistic” space. These antique terracottas, however, have seemingly not come down to us. We, however, have numerous documents about clay production from the 16th and especially 17th centuries when specific treatises dedicated to gardens and gardening began recommending the most proper means for the plants fashionable at the time.

With the passing of time, the shapes of the pots for plants gradually became simpler, while those used for the ornamentation of buildings maintained their fantastic shapes, enriched with plastic trimmings of protomes, mascarons, rosettes, pod-shaped decorations and other botanical or zoomorphic elements. In particular, in the 17th century, with the spread of citrus cultivation, the typology of the pot intended for lemon and sweet orange trees, that we still use today, was developed. At the same time, quadrangular pots for the cultivation of flowers, with a projecting outer edge and festoons, began to be used and this typology remained almost unaltered throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Also terracotta statuary was a very rich field due to the eclectic changing taste in the late 19th century and the repertory of the Impruneta kilnmen was enriched by new figures, some of which were even somewhat exotic, such as sphinxes or dragons which were produced alongside more traditional animals, such as watchdogs and eagles, already common between the 17th and 18th centuries, and reproductions of the most famous classical and renaissance sculptures.

Objects of Everyday Use

Unlike garden pots and furniture, whose general characteristics have remained fundamentally unchanged over time and where only their decoration seems to show traces of changes in taste over time, the objects of everyday use – and particularly foodstuff containers such as the big oil jars - have undergone a precise evolution in their shapes in order to meet specific functional needs. Among the most antique exemplars which have come down to us we have, for example, some “woodcock jars”, used for storing corn, oil and other foodstuffs, whose characteristic profile is unmistakable, due to its bird’s beak-shaped mouth and its flat handle, remained unchanged from the 14th to the late 16th century.

Over time and owing to the need to have larger containers, the jars became more pot-bellied, reaching, in some cases, truly monumental sizes. Their bodies, initially smooth, were then decorated with rings which had both a decorative and a structural function, while the mouth was removed and replaced by a jutting edge and an opening placed in the lower part of the jar, where it was possible to insert a spigot to draw the liquids. During the 18th century, instead, jars kept their typical ovoid shape, while their formerly flattened neck was progressively elongated into the shape of a cylinder placed directly on the sides of the container. They were often decorated with garlands, protomes and mascarons in relief and sometimes they were glazed to make the porous terracotta waterproof.

All through the 19th century, the aspect of jars remained almost unchanged, but already around mid-century they started to lose their main function as foodstuff containers, slowly becoming majestic decorative elements to be used in town yards or in large suburban gardens, to hold coloured flower plants.

20th-century Terracotta

Early 20th-century Impruneta production bears witness to a period of extraordinary growth as regards terracotta manufacturing, which was favoured both by the need at the time to use clay extensively in building, also as a substitute for iron used exclusively for the military industry, and by fascist politics which promoted productive and economic autarchy.

The renewed interest in this very resistant and at the same time very ductile material, whose widespread use dates back to Etruscan and Roman times and whose techniques had remained basically unchanged since those remote ages, spurred fast changes regarding the shapes of the vessels, especially the decorative ones used to furnish gardens and parks, which, devoid of Della Robbian festoons and garlands, protomes, knobs, rosettes and other reliefs, changed their shapes adjusting to the geometric rigor carried forward by rational architecture.

The simplified outlines of the vessels, all of which were based on geometric solids or on somehow “purified” traditional shapes, were enlivened only by subtly worked surfaces, showing hammered effects, like in metals, or rough ones created by the potter’s wet fingers which instead of caressing the clay as usual, would make it rough by delicately patting it repeatedly until it was scabrous. Other vessels instead, seem clutched by series of parallel lines or by vigorous bands in relief, others yet draw on Etruscan and Roman shapes for everyday objects, showing a taste for antiquity and for the old Italic tradition, which had already spread archaeological and classical reminiscences in sculpture.

The Success of the Renaissance

Particularly as a result of stimulating collaborations with architects and designers, Impruneta’s potteries have promoted a renewal of production in recent years. The range of garden and home vessels has been enriched with modern shapes, characterized by the contemporary taste for minimalist furniture which favours clean, rigorously geometric outlines. Once again vessels have been stripped of all decorations and rims, their usual proportions have been changed, modular compositions have been created, softened only by the warm terracotta colour.

Alongside these artefacts of a more innovative tendency, in any case, the reproduction of vessels and especially of classical reliefs and sculptures from the Florentine 15th and 16th centuries is still very common, a practice which has continued non-stop since the 19th century when the taste for copies, marked by an exaggerated Romantic sensibility, revealed itself in eclectic shapes which, in Tuscany, were mainly mitigated by a marked preference for the golden age of the Renaissance and especially by a veritable cult of images of serene beauty.

And so, if it is still possible to see here and there in the gardens of the small, late 19th-century villas in Impruneta, fountains with water gushing from the mouth of a dolphin held in the arms of Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous putto, in the terracotta factory showrooms there are even more examples and of more various kinds: from the miniature Aphrodite of Milos, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Apollo of Belvedere, Discobolus of Myron, the demure Medici Venus, through copies from Donatello, Desiderio da Settignano, Luca and Andrea della Robbia, Francesco Laurana, Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, Giambologna up to copies of Antonio Canova’s works, at times carried out with such simplicity that the result is totally different from the original, as if there had been, through the humble terracotta, an attempt to tame and warm the cold haughtiness of marble.