Some new foreigners have arrived, with whom I sometimes visit a gallery: they remind me of the wasps in my room which bang against the windows, thinking they are air, bounce back and then buzz around the walls. (Goethe, Italian Journey)

Step from the road into the olive groves and the source of Deruta's place in history sticks to your Blundstones. It's the umber clay of Umbria. We arrived in late winter and the rolling Umbrian hills were patchworked with freshly ploughed, soft yellow fields which glowed in the blue haze.

But Deruta is fed by an ugly mess of pottery factories and tourist shops strung along the autostrada. The town lives on maiolica pottery and tourists get what they want and see only what they choose to see. On top of the hill, looking away to fields and woods and over the factories, is the medieval walled village: unspoiled, with fountain, church full of frescoes and superb little museum. It is home to the descendants of potters who emerged from obscure origins in the late thirteenth century.

A stay of two months in Deruta threw into sharp relief for us many questions about the relationship between art and craft, between the artist and the artisan. It made us think about the meaning of art, the importance of the Renaissance, about Modernism and about whether Italian food is really all that good. (Leaving aside the question of whether Australians can afford to eat it anyway).

The potters of Deruta have been making and decorating their wares for over 700 years and the state of the market has probably always been a more important consideration for them than concerns about art. Early potters used medieval woodcuts for their inspiration and this has clearly influenced the linear style of decoration which is still used today. Affluence in the Renaissance period created a demand for extravagant ware in the style of Raphael and copies of the masters are an important part of modern production. Period fashions come and go - we caught glimpses of the twenties and of fifties folk styles. Currently it's florals. Don't look for any brown stonewares, however, because high-temperature clays and glazes are not part of the tradition.

I was there to observe, to learn and to work. Maiolica or faience is a technique developed in the Middle East in about the tenth century in an attempt to compete with the blue and white porcelain of China. A pot is coated with an unfired glaze whitened with tin, and then decorated with coloured metal oxides before firing. The technique was in use in Deruta by the end of the thirteenth century in order to meet the demands of the newly rich of late Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Now the Deruta designs are mainly derived from museum collections or reference books. As a result of this constant copying over hundreds of years, it is often impossible to guess the age of undated pieces.

Since there is no tradition of maiolica in Australia, the methods we developed were pretty much our own. So, I discovered, was our technique. My methods in Australia evolved to cope with technical problems which the Deruta potters solved centuries ago. In Deruta I worked at first in a small commercial studio and the artists there showed me simple techniques which cannot be learned from books. On the first day I set to work, copying a design from a museum catalogue and, to their surprise and mine, came up with an instant medieval platter! The important difference was that I worked mano libero - freehand. Virtually all the considerable production of this town is painted from stencils. Inevitably the work lacks freshness and tends towards 'fearful symmetry'. Any artist who can work freehand and is also capable of figurative work produces for the antique market, which is one of Italy's growth industries. I was under considerable pressure to work in that direction. In the large studio of a local artist, I was shown a collection of 'antique yesterdays’: a shipment, in fact, that was destined for Australia.

Rather than simply learning technique I found I had to resolve once again what I was trying to achieve. Being only two hours on the autostrada from Florence helped. As well, I had access to some splendid small ceramics museums. With our modern emphasis on spontaneity and individual creativity, it is not easy for us to place the repetitively-produced maiolica pots in context. Many of the Classical Greek and Roman marble sculptures now in museums were in fact produced in workshops which might be compared to those in Deruta. So might the wood and stone-carving studios in Bali. Classical cities such as Ephesus owed their existence to their supplies of marble and studios churned out temple facades, mausoleums and statues of emperors and heroes on demand. Some of the artisans who learned their trade there became known as artists and their work is treasured today, but it is notable that most of the Roman marbles in museums are copies from Greek originals.

How, then, do we judge a maiolica platter decorated with a copy of a Raphael painting, or the work of a potter who throws a hundred well-designed but identical platters in a day, all copies of a medieval design? There is no context for this sort of work in Australia. When we look at a well-decorated medieval Deruta platter in a museum, it would be hard to deny that it is art of a very high order. Yet modern platters with a similar design can be found in the Deruta showrooms on Via Tiberina (or in an antique shop in Florence for higher prices).

Rather than trying to resolve these problems, I avoided them and worked in my own style. In whatever age they are made, the pots should, after all, be allowed to speak for themselves.

And, strange to tell, among that Earthen lot

Some could articulate while others not:

And suddenly one more impatient cried

'Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?’

[Omar Khayyam]

I read Barbara Tuchman's account of the Black Plague while staying in a fourteenth century house with a view of a bell-tower. It brought sombre thoughts about the acid rain falling outside the window and the dead Tiber flowing in the valley below. Goethe's travels in Italy brought more cheer, provided I skipped the bits about his mineral collection. He was a good travelling companion and helped make our Italian Journey more meaningful. As he says: 'Energetic, ambitious spirits cannot be satisfied by pleasure: they demand knowledge. This demand drives them to original activity and, whatever the results may be, such a person comes to feel in the end, he can judge nothing justly except that which he has produced himself'.

Goethe, Itahan Journey, 1788, Penguin edition, 1962.

Tuchman, B., A Distant Mirror, Penguin, 1979.

Fitzgerald, E. [trans], The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

[Alexandra and Leigh Copeland worked in ceramic studios in Deruta, Italy recently with the assistance of the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council.]



In Deruta


[Published Art Monthly, December,


[Alexandra Copeland travelled to Deruta with the assistance from the Australia Council].