This story begins with clay. It can be molded and impressed. It can be structured to represent artistic ideals or scripted to carry on a culture’s history. There is a lot of weight in clay.
Italian majolica is the art of hand-created and ornately painted ceramic. The tradition of majolica spans hundreds of years, but America’s introduction to collectible majolica began just a few decades ago in San Francisco’s Little Italy.
These photographs recount the story of my father’s yearly buying trip for Biordi’s Art Imports, his majolica retail store. Over the period of ten days, I traveled with him from majolica artisan to artisan, from Sicily to Rimini. In a blur of craft and color, and with camera in hand, I grew ever so aware of how small Italy can seem and how very precious this tradition is to the culture. Italy is a country that celebrates every occasion in no little way; each block of a town or city may see majolica as a symbol, as important as the ritual creation of a regional dish. That symbol becomes a proud form of individual, as well as societal, expression that is just as specific, quirky, emotional, and joyful as the little shop/alley/corner/home that it comes from.
The art of majolica is in the eyes of the craftsman. For many of these artisans, the tradition has been passed down from generation to generation, the styles evolving from the old to the new. I’ve been privileged to grow around majolica, and see it grow around me. The painted stories continue to amaze me, whispering brightly to me of my Italian home. Although much has changed for my father in importing Italian majolica to America over the years, the artisan’s love of the craft and the ingenuity behind every piece carries on.
Now I know that whenever my father and I travel to Italy, Italian majolica will be a familiar face — a song being played to a dance that everyone knows, a running tale about the grand empire of clay and the artisan’s ability to create beauty from the earth.