Italy is known for embracing art in its many forms. While Italy is not the birthplace of ceramic making, it’s undeniable that the country is home to skilled artisans who have perfected this ancient tradition. Hand-painted ceramics are often referred to as maiolica, which references the tin glaze used on these pieces. The original spelling of this name was majolica, a variation of the Spanish island of Majorca. This is where the glazing technique was born. Italian artisans grew fond of this pottery technique during the Renaissance. It has since remained a national symbol of beauty ever since.
From north to south, you’ll find hand-painted ceramics in many shops. Many of these pieces share aesthetic similarities, yet they are very different at the same time. Dissecting and differentiating them can be a challenge, however. This is why I’ve broken down the most popular of the maiolica genres. After reading this guide, you’ll have the necessary tools to make an educated purchase when in Italy.
Despite being one of Italy’s smallest regions, Umbria is a powerhouse in maiolica production. A lot of the pottery found in shops across Italy likely originates from this landlocked region. There are three famous towns that create their own distinct designs.
The name Deruta may not ring a bell in everyone’s mind until they see a piece of it and realize that it’s the classic Italian design one usually imagines. As with all styles of ceramic, many variations exist, but the most popular color choice in this town is blue and gold. The Raffaellesco design is arguably Deruta’s most famous for its use of the dragon, a symbol of good luck to sailors. Umbrian artists began using it in the 16th century as a means of paying homage to the Renaissance painter Raphael.
Another town in Umbria that is popular for its ceramic tradition is Gubbio. This art form is believed to have arrived in the area during the 14th century. It gained a distinct identity for its use of bold colors after the arrival of Mastro Giorgio Andreoli. He strayed from the original blue and gold color palette of Deruta and opted for deep shades of orange, green, and red. Production of Gubbio maiolica ceased for many years but was revived in the 19th century and continues to thrive today.
Finally, a popular day trip from Rome is the quaint hilltop town of Orvieto. But don’t let its petite size fool you into thinking it lacks a wide selection of pottery to choose from. Strolling down its winding lanes, one is presented with countless shops offering some of Italy’s most beautiful works of art. The origins of ceramic production in this town date back thousands of years to the Etruscan era, whose creations were very simplistic in nature.
It wasn’t until the 13th century that the Galletto (rooster) became an emblematic symbol of Orvieto’s ceramics. Typically hand-painted in green, the rooster is believed to symbolize good luck, prosperity, and well-being, making it a popular choice in Umbrian homes.
The narrow road leading toward Orvieto’s stunning Duomo is where you will find Silvana Ceramiche. Like many of the shops in the Centro Storico, its exterior is adorned with a colorful display of its inventory. It’s one of two boutiques in Orvieto selling the exclusive collection by local producer L.AR.CE. Silvana Ceramiche carries an assortment of maiolica from magnets and wine corks, to large plates and vases.
Silvana Ceramiche: Via del Duomo 19 — Orvieto
A short drive from the hustle and bustle of Florence is the small town of Montelupo Fiorentino. The tradition of maiolica production arrived in the area during the 13th century. It became a prized export from this town after gaining popularity among the Florentine nobility, including the Medici family. This has been possible because of the natural clay deposits found on the banks of the Arno River.
Though there are many styles within this genre, the most original designs consisted of elaborate patterns in cobalt blue and white. Today, the pottery of Montelupo Fiorentino comes in many variations and colors, often depicting Tuscany’s rich agricultural landscape. Their motifs range from picturesque countryside scenes to a bounty of sunflowers, poppies, and lemons. But they can also consist of elaborate patterns that are skillfully hand-painted in a variety of colors.
Museo della Ceramica di Montelupo
This is a town that celebrates the tradition of hand-painted pottery. It’s home to a museum that showcases an extensive collection of ceramics, spanning more than 500 years. The Museo della Ceramica di Montelupo is a shrine with over 1000 pieces of restored maiolica on display and several thousand more in storage. Enthusiasts of this art form should consider a visit in the month of June when the town hosts the International Ceramic Festival. This occasion affords one the opportunity to buy from local artisans and partake in various workshops and exhibitions. It’s a great immersive experience that can lend a new appreciation to this historic tradition.
Among Montelupo Fiorentino’s many pottery shops is La Galleria, a studio that offers its patrons an immersive experience in ceramic making. Featuring an on-site laboratory, this family-run business allows visitors to witness artisans hard at work creating these works of art. Best of all, you’ll even have the opportunity to give pottery-making a go!
La Galleria Montelupo: Via XX Settembre 7 — Montelupo Fiorentino
Sicily is an island with a rich ceramic heritage that dates back thousands of years. The Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all had their own variations of this custom. However, the arrival of the Arabs had the most instrumental impact on Sicilian pottery. They introduced new glaze and paint mediums, along with elaborate, geometric patterns. Finally, the Spanish brought their own techniques, which allowed paint colors to remain vibrant even after being fired at high temperatures. These elements are still alive today and lend to the unique charm that makes Sicilian maiolica so sought after.
While a number of towns in Sicily are famous for their ceramic production, the undisputed capital is Caltagirone. This Baroque town is famous for its elaborate, hand-painted patterns in golden yellows and various shades of blue and green. Its love for maiolica is present everywhere, including the staircase of Santa Maria del Monte, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. Consisting of 142 steps, each one is adorned with local hand-painted tiles, showcasing the town’s pride in artisanship.
Santo Stefano di Camastra
Another town renowned for its pottery is Santo Stefano di Camastra. A visit here presents one with abundant storefront displays of these locally hand-painted treasures. This genre usually features backgrounds in fiery shades of red, orange, and rust with deep blue patterns. While it features equally ornate patterns as its counterpart from Caltagirone, this variety of maiolica embodies the heat and fire that emanates from the island’s volcanic landscape.
The pigna (pine cone) is a symbol of buon auspicio (good luck), often given as a gift. Believed to symbolize prosperity, abundance, fertility, and immortality, it’s easy to see why it’s a popular gift for weddings, births, and other important milestones. You’re sure to see them at a home’s entrance and on balconies — just about everywhere. Their popularity has extended far beyond the island and you won’t be hard-pressed to find them in shops across the country.
And while you can shop for Sicilian maiolica throughout Italy, it can be really special to find these fine treasures in their land of origin. Based in Caltagirone is Agatino Caruso, a brand with a solid attention to detail. Behind each hand-painted design is Agatino Caruso, an artist committed to giving life to every piece he creates. All of his creations are signed “Caruso Caltagirone” with a certificate of authenticity available upon request, ensuring that your purchase is an original work of art.
Agatino Caruso: Piazza Innocenzo Marcinnò 4 – Caltagirone
Among Italy’s most popular destinations is the Amalfi Coast, famous for its lemons and breathtaking sea views. Given this, it’s no surprise that the ceramics of the Campania region embody the splendor offered by both the land and sea of the area.
Vietri sul Mare
Vietri sul Mare may be one of the Amalfi Coast’s smaller, lesser-visited towns, but it’s an epicenter for ceramic production. If you’re looking to beat the crowds and shop in peace, you may want to pay this town a visit. Here you can find beautifully hand-painted tiles featuring geometric patterns in varying shades of blue, turquoise, green, and yellow. In fact, these are the same tiles that have become synonymous with the signature Amalfi decor seen in this region’s hotels.
You’ll also come across elegant tableware featuring deep blue backgrounds with bright, yellow lemons to a wide range of vividly colored backgrounds that celebrate local sea and animal life. They’re an incredibly popular choice on tables in homes and restaurants in the area.
In Positano, one brand in particular has cemented itself as the master of hand-painted pottery. Ceramica Assunta is the unequivocal choice when shopping for ceramics indigenous to this region. Their highly skilled artisans produce and sell these works of art both in-person and online. You’re not going to want to miss out on visiting one (or all) of their three shops when in Positano. But even if you’re unable to make the trip there, don’t fret because they offer an extensive selection online and ship worldwide.
Ceramica Assunta: Via C. Colombo 97, Via C. Colombo 137, Via Del Saracino 4 — Positano