Albisola and Ceramics: an Identity on the Edge of History

Cecilia Chilosi

What is the point, nowadays, in working with ceramics at the place where it is produced? Is it still viable to come to Albisola when you can quite easily work with ceramics without the support of a specialist factory, given that you can get your hands on the raw materials and an electric kiln just about anywhere?
A partial response to this question may lie in the simple supposition that the strength of the present is there in our past (the need for history?). In other words, what draws an artist is a place where an uninterrupted legacy coincides with a sense of cultural belonging.
While in recent decades, various artists have cultivated their own technical-artistic skills individually, Albisola still boasts a rich network of manufacturers offering technical support courtesy of the master ceramists of the area, a tradition which has born such rich fruits, especially over this past century, that it simply must not be overlooked.
The story starts with the combination of favorable circumstances in the area, including the need for the actual product and the availability of the necessary elements: clay, water, wood for burning, the sun to dry the products and the sea to transport all over the world. Yet none of the above would have been enough had it not been for the ceramics introduced from outside the area, often from overseas.
In the past, the sea was a source of survival not only for sailors and fishermen but also for the ceramists whose work was exported aboard the ships of rich local merchants. Overseas trade brought, from China, precious porcelain-ware, a font of inspiration for the Ottoman ceramics imported by Genoa’s seafarers, in turn imitated in the workshops of Savona and Albisola. More recently, the great artistic season of the last century saw artists attracted by the sea and the prospect of spending time on the beach and at the seaside resorts which overlook the ceramics factories.
The centuries-long relationship between Albisola and ceramics has undergone various ups and downs due to variations in historical and socio-anthropological conditions. However, even during the slumps, ceramics production has always managed to tap into the changes in art, thought and style, renewing its repertoire through new links with the outside thanks to the circularity and diffusion of models and decorations.
Back in the XV and XVI centuries, the flourishing production of laggioni (multicolored tiles) which made Albisola’s ceramists famous abroad, drew on Tuscan influences and therefore from Islamic art as filtered through the Spanish azulejos (glazed tiles) and the Renaissance1.
Widely used on walls as well as floors, these tiles were also used on the atrium-stairwells, the large open areas at the entrance to residences where the rich merchants would carry out their business.
Although abundant documentation exists from as far back as the late 1400’s, the oldest exemplars of Albisola ceramics come in the form of two panels in polychrome enamel: one painted by Giovanni Giacomo Sciaccarama in 15542 (now in the Museo della Ceramica “Manlio Trucco”, following a recent refurbishment); the other painted by Gerolamo Urbinate in 1576, in the parish of Albissola Marina, and inspired by a painting by Antonio Semino, The Adoration of the Shepherds.
Tile manufacture, which tailed off during the seventeenth century, came back to the fore in the eighteenth century, helped along by the popularity of baroque villa architecture. Some splendid examples of such tiling still remain, especially in the form of floor tiles. Manufacture would pick up again in the XX century, in the 1920s and again in the 1930s, with the advent of the second futurism in Italy, the global program of which, according to its promoters, was the redefinition of all sectors, including residential and architectural. Chief exponents included Enrico Prampolini, Tato (Guglielmo Sansoni), Fillia (Luigi Colombo) and Fortunato Depero3.
The 1960’s marked a widespread use of this product, especially on walls, though it was notably used as flooring for the Artists’ Walk on the seafront of Albissola Marina (1963), which featured vitreous mosaic tesseras.
Many famous artists who frequented the Albisola kilns during the last century worked in the field of applied ceramics. See, for example, the realization of ceramics (household and limited edition) created for the futurist Edizioni Ceramiche and promoted by Tullio d’Albisola (1928-29).
Among the most outstanding artists working with ceramics is Lucio Fontana, who collaborated assiduously with architects and interior designers, a fact documented in a rich photographic collection at the Archivio Fontana in Milan. At Mazzotti, in 1947, with a commission from architects Zanuso and Menghi, he produced his first spatial ceramics as ornaments for a building in via Senato (Milan), as well as a large-scale frieze featuring a battle scene for the Cinema Arlecchino (1948).
Fontana is also known for designing household objects and fixtures, such as fireplaces, lampshades and door-handles, as well as naval furnishings, including the panels he created for the motorboat Conte Biancamano in 1949, now with the Town Council of Albissola Marina.
Giacomo Manzù’s work in ceramics is linked to the broader project of furnishing the Milan residence and San Remo villa of the Lampugnani family, and was carried out in 1947 at the Mazzotti factory. Even Wifredo Lam did not shy from applied ceramics, creating, at FAC, in Albisola, domestic crockery services. Asger Jorn, meanwhile, sought the expertise of the Ceramiche San Giorgio where he fired and assembled a series of large-scale wall panels for the Staatgymnasium in Aarhus (1959) and for the Randers Art Center (1971) (both Denmark).
Though over the centuries Albisola’s ceramics have played an important role in the legacy of architectural and furnishing complements, a fact often overlooked by the major studies carried out on the phenomenon, its true heyday must be with the birth and spread of baroque majolica. Even when the low-price crockery in hump-backed, graffitied terracotta, aimed at the less well-off, got underway, production of the more sought-after majolica ware continued apace. Aimed at pandering to aristocratic commissions, these ceramics from the XVI and XVII centuries stand out for their refinement of form and decoration and were often executed by important artists not averse to lending their designs to products of high craftsmanship4. This prosperous period of baroque output was also linked with the history of medicine, coinciding as it did with a period of great epidemics. Remedies were stored in prestigious vases lined up on pharmacy shelves5. Savona and Albisola ware was particularly sought-after at the time. Archive documents bring to life a rich tapestry of commissions and exports all over the globe6.
XVI-century majolica from Savona and Albisola is characterized, first and foremost, by ornamentation culled from the middle-Italy repertoire, in turn from middle-eastern (Anatolian) or Hispanic (Moorish) derivation7. Later, it would be inspired by exported porcelains such as Kraak (named after the ships on which they were transported), widely imported in Europe, originally by the Portuguese and, from 1612, by the Dutch Company of the East Indies. From China came the model defined as “naturalistic calligraphy”, originally cobalt blue on a white or gray background, featuring oriental motifs such as lake foliage, insects, birds, and pagodas, teamed with other more western motifs such as turreted castles and religious, historical and mythological subjects. Around the mid-seventeenth century, a “tapestry” style was introduced. Here, the stylization of natural elements on the surface of the vase was accompanied by scenes featuring figures. By the end of the century, “baroque backdrops” inspired by the foremost Genoese painters and integrated into the repertoire of design, book illustration and incision, would gradually win the upper hand.
Seen through a modern eye, the beauty of these products, conceived to satisfy a practical necessity, derives from a felicitous mix of function and aesthetics, which certainly contributed to the success of a ceramic output which soon gained fame all over the world. Models drawing on this style would be widely imitated. Particularly from the late nineteenth century, there was a revival of “antico Savona” designs. However, although the various craftsmen and artists involved were no slouches when it came to replicating the refined ceramics of the past, the loss of function only served to damage the elegant equilibrium of the prototypes which would never again be remotely equaled.
In over the course of the XVIII century, the emergence in Europe of porcelain, including the growing popularity of white English earthenware, would plunge the high “luxury” craftsmanship of the great Ligurian baroque tradition into crisis. Our ceramists would react by creating, along with the ever-popular seventeenth-century models, new motifs featuring “figurettes” among ruins and tree trunks, as well as “birds and parsley”. Meanwhile, in the late eighteenth century, Giacomo Boselli8 would introduce into his repertoire an intense and varied polychrome.
Majolica production would eventually tail off in Albisola as attention turned towards more populist, low-cost products9. Distribution of these was enormous, in keeping with a sea change in customs and habits among even the most humble classes, as individual plates took over from the use of the common all-purpose bowl.
As far back as the late 1700s, crockery was being produced in the characteristic brown-orange color, decorated under the glaze with simple aniconical designs in manganese, the so-called taches noires, a touch of understated neoclassical-type elegance. The early 1800s heralded the arrival of “black pottery”, a typically dark terracotta, and yellow ceramics with essential decorations featuring sponged designs in copper flake or manganese. The XX century would also see the development of an important semi-industrial line in pans made from refractory terracotta.
Low production costs and rapid execution ensured the success of these products, the aesthetic merits of which would remain, for a long time, overlooked. Not until relatively recent times was the elegant simplicity of these products appreciated, the role of the clay finally exalted in its dual importance as material and useful object.
While this vast production, which drew on the great baroque tradition, failed to be renewed, its extreme figural simplification would serve as a reference point for artists working with ceramics in modern times.
A substantial rift opened up between the history of twentieth-century Albisola ceramics and previous centuries’ production, nothing to do with luxury products versus popular products, but due to a new factor: the influx of artists into the field of ceramics. This was an innovation not in the sense that artists had never frequented the area to use the materials at hand, but because their input over the course of the century would be irrepressibly innovative.
The figure destined to make the most indelible mark on the Ligurian art scene was Arturo Martini, who settled in Vado Ligure for about a decade, from 1920 to 1930. Particularly memorable from this Treviso-born artist were his ceramic’s for Manlio Trucco’s Fenice in 1927.
By the end of the 1920s Albisola, which, thanks to Tullio d’Albisola, had come into contact with Marinetti, Munari and all the foremost exponents of the Milan futurists, would emerge as the capital of Italian ceramics10.
The Mazzotti company, with premises designed by Nicolaij Dijulgheroff, proved to be a magnet for the main players on the avantgarde scene, including Fillia, Farfa, Prampolini, Depero, Munari, Dijulgheroff, Strada and Pacetti, artists who also produced furnishing accessories for commercial manufacture.
However, we must again ask ourselves what lay behind this happy artistic contingency? And why was Albisola singled out?
First and foremost was the environment, the very pleasantness of the place. The prestigious artists who frequented Albisola from the 30s, particularly during the late post-war period, did so because the place was so receptive. A host of manufacturers offered hospitality and assistance. Another draw is the polyhedral figure of Tullio Mazzotti, and not forgetting that it is always great to be able to alternate the business of work with the pleasures of the beach.

1. To this regard see G. Farris, La ceramica in Liguria dal XVI al XVIII secolo, in Otto secoli di ceramica ligure, exhibition catalogue, Albisola Superiore, 13 September-12 October 1986 and A. Cameirana: Contributo per una ricerca sull’origine savonese delle decorazioni sopra i mattoni saccenti in “Atti del Convegno di Studi”, Sciacca, 8-9 October 1999. On the aspects related to production from Albisola, D. Restagno: La fabbricazione della ceramica, in Albisola, Savona, 1988. There is extensive literature on the general aspects of ceramics from Savona and Albisola. Some of the various texts include: C. Barile, Antiche ceramiche liguri-Maioliche di Albisola, Savona, 1975; F. Marzinot, Ceramiche e ceramisti di Liguria, Genoa 1979 (2nd edition 1987); A. Cameirana, Antica maiolica savonese, Savona, 1990; edited by the same author: Nuove acquisizioni per un museo della  ceramica, Savona, 1995 e Antica maiolica savonese, Savona 2001.
2. D. Restagno-D. Ventura, Restauro del pannello in ceramica,  G.G. Sciaccarama (1554) per l’hospitale San Nicolò di Albisola, Albisola 2001.
3. Additional information in: L. Ughetto, Ceramica e aeroceramica futurista, in: C. Chilosi-L. Ughetto, La ceramica del Novecento in Liguria, Genoa 1995, pp. 101-106. 
4. See, among others, the studies by A. Cameirana including: Due statuine della fabbrica Ribatto con un’inedita sigla, in “Atti  XXVIII Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola 1995; Maioliche savonesi da affreschi di Bartolomeo Guidobono, in “Atti XXIX Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola, 1996.
5. For pharmacy ceramics: G. Farris, Ceramica e Farmacia, Genoa 1982 and by C. Chilosi, E. Mattiauda and A. Zencovich, Cultura terapeutica e antiche farmacie nella Liguria Occidentale, Genoa 1985.
6. Pertinent information, among others, can be found in: C. Varaldo, L’esportazione di ceramica savonese nella documentazione archivistica del XVII secolo, in: “Atti del V Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola 1972, pp. 337-347; A.M. Rossetti, Ceramica a Savona e Albisola nella seconda metà del ‘500. Produzione e commercio, in “Atti del XXV Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola 1992, pp. 149-164.
7. For the influence of middle-eastern models on ceramics from Savona and Albisola see, among others, the catalogue, edited by A. Cameirana, Antica maiolica savonese, Savona 2001, with bibliography.
8. For the work by Boselli see: L. Pessa, Giacomo Boselli, Genoa, 1984.
9. For what concerns the aspects of popular ceramics see, for more detailed information: A. Cameirana, V. Fagone, S. Riolfo Marengo, Nero & giallo. Ceramica popolare ligure dal Settecento al Novecento, Milan 1989.
10. In addition to the previously referenced text by L. Ughetto, for an approach to the futuristic Albisola ceramics, see the basic catalogue, edited by E. Crispolti, La ceramica futurista da Balla a Tullio d’Albisola, Faenza/Albisola, 1982.

Text published in the catalogue of the 1st Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “The Happy Face of Globalization”, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2001.