Handmade Ceramics of the Amalfi Coast

La costiera amalfitana è un vivace paesaggio caratterizzato da case color pastello, ripidi giardini terrazzati e scogliere a strapiombo sul mar Mediterraneo. A donare ancor più vitalità  a questo scenario sono gli sfavillanti negozi di ceramica artigianale che si trovano in ogni paese della zona, dove gli amanti di questi oggetti troveranno le vetrine dei negozi di ceramiche irresistibili quanto i meravigliosi panorami circostanti. La produzione di ceramica è un’importante tradizione della costiera amalfitana dal XV secolo e il suo centro principale è Vietri sul Mare, famosa per essere la capitale della ceramica in Campania, che  insieme ad Amalfi e Ravello gode di una raffinata selezione di negozi che possono fare la felicità degli amanti del genere. Una visita è d’obbligo per coloro che sono alla ricerca di incantevoli e pregiate ceramiche fatte a mano che si distinguono per la lucentezza dei colori e le vivaci tinte che ricordano l’azzurro brillante del mare, il verde intenso e l’esplosione di giallo luminoso dei limoni locali.  

Of all the made-in-Italy products I love, the handcrafted ceramics are definitely a favorite. The little town of Vietri sul Mare at the eastern end of the Amalfi Coast is known throughout the world as a top producer of ceramics. I’m fortunate to own a set of handcrafted plates and bowls with colorful designs from this faraway place but, until recently, had never visited the city of Vietri. I had only seen glimpses of it from the perspective of a ferry boat or the Amalfi Coast Road.

In the fall of 2016, I made a trip to the Amalfi Coast and was treated to a behind-the-scenes experience, where I got to meet the actual artisans in their ceramic workshops. Thanks to two people who work directly with these ceramic artists and facilitate the sales and shipping of these ceramics all over the world, I gleaned an even higher appreciation for ceramics from Vietri.

On a walking tour of the town, I discovered that everything seems more compact. I couldn’t walk five feet without hues of blue, yellow, red, and green showering my senses. Each shop’s name was created on ceramic tiles and the entire façade of that shop was decorated in multicolored designs of the artist’s choice. Large decorative pots adorned the entrances and lovely flowering plants in vases on the sidewalks enticed shoppers. Although it was Saturday when the workshops would normally be closed, my hosts asked the artists to stay open so I could meet them.

Touched to think that each of these Vietri artists gave up their day off for me to see them work, I was eager to meet them. Inside the first shop was Anna Rita, surrounded by many pots of paint and numerous paint brushes in a tight space. With the utmost precision, she focused as she detailed a ceramic piece with a thin brush in her right hand, stabilizing a turntable with her left. It was a joy to meet the woman whose name is on the back of the plates I had previously purchased!

A few streets away I had the pleasure of meeting Raffaele at another workshop. With great pride he explained in Italian that he is 70-years-old and has been creating Vietri pottery since the age of nine. Eager to demonstrate his skills for me, he turned on the power to his electric turntable and, within seconds, used his hands to form a perfectly shaped bowl. With skill achieved only from a lifetime of experience, he was finished in less than a minute and held up a flawlessly formed pitcher for our approval. I was blown away and would have loved to stay there all day and watch this artist at work. I learned later that Raffaele is one of the oldest ceramics masters still alive.

  Away from the historic center of town is a ceramics factory and arrangements had been made so I could go inside. Here, an impressive ceramics studio that encompassed more than one room was filled with elaborate finished pieces of ceramic murals, tabletops and true works of art - even sculptures. I was introduced to Antonio, who was happy to show me some of his more elaborate projects. He explained that this is the oldest factory of hand-produced and hand-decorated ceramics still in production in Vietri. His factory has been in continuous operation since the 16th century. With his father, Antonio owns and operates this company named CE.AR. I was surprised to learn that Antonio and seven others are the only employees.

Here I learned from Antonio how the ceramics process works. Molded objects first must dry so all the residual water in the clay can evaporate. A huge drying rack that sits on wheels is pushed into a giant kiln where the tiles bake at temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius for approximately 12 hours. After an additional 24 hours, the baked tiles are cool enough for glazing, which is done by immersing the tiles into a solution of enamel to coat the surface. After that, the decoration is applied by hand by skilled ceramic masters. When this artistic process is complete, the tiles or objects are placed back in the oven for a second firing for an additional 8-10 hours at 920-950 degrees Celsius. Another 8-10 hours of cooling are required before the process is complete. Nothing is mass-produced here and, just like when this art began in the 15th century, everything is still made upon request, so each item is unique. I now have a better understanding why these ceramic plates and other items can be as costly as they are.

What struck me the most in speaking with Antonio was the pride he exhibited as he shared his passion with me. The encounter was personal and meaningful, a once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll remember forever.

Now when I’m home and use my Vietri-made plates every day, I have an instant memory of this special day in Vietri sul Mare. I’d encourage anyone to visit this less-touristy city on the Amalfi Coast. You won’t be disappointed.