Living atop Florence!

You may look at the photo below and think, that’s not the best shot of Giotto’s Campanile that she’s posted recently.


And you’d be right!  It isn’t!  But, what I’m trying to focus on is the terra cotta chimney topper on the chimney in the middle of the picture.  See it?


This thing.  I’m talking about this chimney topper of 3 upside down V’s.

What I’ve noticed about living up high above historic Florence is that there are all manner of interesting and artistic chimney toppers.  I love looking at them.

For example, there’s also this one:


I know, you’re probably looking at the Duomo dome.  But I’m focusing right now on this thing:


It’s another cool terra cotta chimney topper and it looks like a little Roman temple!

Then there’s this:


I’m sure that by now your eye is trained and you can focus right on the chimney topper.  This one looks like a little barn with a rolled top.

I’ve yet to see any two chimney toppers alike!



I mean, just look at all the types in any one view!  It’s rather amazing.


And then I start noticing how people up at this level like to decorate their terraces.  Check out the line of matching ceramic pots in the picture above.  See them?


There.  You got it!




Terre cotte di Impruneta, the world’s finest

Let’s start with a picture that summarizes Italian summer to me:


I love Italian geraniums!

But, I digressed!


Okay, so today a friend and I took a beautiful little jaunt through warm and very green Chianti, just outside of Florence to the little village of Impruneta. Impruneta is famed for its proprietorial production of what may well be the world’s finest quality terre cotte.  To me, it is just that.

And the most beautiful.



It is said that the world’s finest terracotta planters come from Impruneta, this small village nestled in the Tuscan hills a few kilometers from Florence, Italy.  Blessed with land that is naturally rich in iron, copper, calcium, and aluminum, the town has been well known for its exceptional quality terracotta and craftsmanship for centuries. Hard gray earth is mined from the surrounding hills, ground to a powder, and mixed with water to make this coarse bodied clay. It develops its renowned pale, terracotta color after the firing process and is able to withstand extreme temperatures.  Terracotta from Impruneta is frost resistant to -22°F. This, along with the hand of a skilled artisan makes the Impruneta collection the absolute best available.


Classic Impruneta Italian terra cotta planters have held their aesthetic value for generations and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

DSC_0171If the term terracotta conjures up images of stacks of dusty orange common clay nursery pots, you’ve probably never experienced the subdued beauty of Italian terracotta from the regions of Impruneta or Siena.



The rich earth in these beautiful Italian towns near Florence boasts an extremely high mineral content which is exceptionally high in iron, calcium, aluminum and copper.  The Impruneta clay is so revered that only seven potters are licensed by the Italian government to use the name on their wares.

The first factor is the type of clay that is used. Impruneta clay is found only by the river Arno near Florence and has been useDSC_0156d to make pottery for at least the last ten centuries.

In addition to the minerals, this gray clay contains particles of sandstone which give it a special strength and texture. This robust mixture makes the resulting pottery incredibly strong in the same way that adding gravel to a concrete mix binds it together to create a more durable finished product.

The pottery is then fired at over 1000 degrees for 36 hours and cooled in the kiln for another 70 hours (terra cotta =  cooked earth). The result is a beautiful soft rosy color not found anywhere else in the world.

The second factor is how the Impruneta pots are created.  There are several techniques employed, all of them labor-intensive.   One method is to hand-apply the clay, pounding it over an inverted form which shapes the clay to the desired form and size. This is then smoothed and decorated.

Another method is to hand-pack the clay into plaster cases, a technique perfected hundreds of years ago.

Even larger pots are often made free-form entirely by hand.  After the bowl or basin of the pot is created, the rim is applied by hand.

It’s easy to tell a handmade pot–when you run your haDSC_0159nd under the rim there is a deep relief where you can fit your fingers.  Machine-made or cast-formed pots have a flat, less dimensional rim with no overhang.


When the artist is satisfied with the
appearance of the pot, it is then fired as previously mentioned.  This results in an extremely strong pot with great structural integrity.  Designs are actually molded into the pot and become an integral part of the structure instead of being “applied” as an afterthought.

Another great way to identify one of these Tuscan masterpieces is by giving it a sharp rap with your knuckles.  The resulting clear, sharp peal of a bell signifies that you indeed are in the presence of one of these amazing pots – high fired with no cracks.

Impruneta terracotta ornaments have classic good looks that9390-1 serve as the perfect counterpoint to a wide variety of flowers and foliage.  Florentine gardens are replete with Imprunetta pottery, as is the Vatican.  In the USA, the Biltmore Estate has several large Impruneta pots that have graced their gardens since the 1800s.

Imagine how tough it was to import these from Italy more than 200 years ago.   These are some rugged beauties that were able to survive that journey.

Another spot in the US in which you may have seen Impruneta terracotta is at the New York Botanical Gardens.  They chose large classic rolled rim pots to showcase their gorgeous specimens of lemon trees.

These planters will last more than a lifetime with proper care.  They’re extremely hardy and can be left outside to weather in areas where frost is expected (but nothing lower) without fear, but it is  imperative to make sure the pot is lifted off the ground and that the drainage hole is unobstructed so water has the ability to drain freely.

clay_boyThe use of clay to produce both models and finished sculpture has been important to Italian artists such as Donatello and Luca della Robbia since the early 15th century. They took advantage of the special clay found in the area and consequently helped make Florence an important center for Italian art. Still today you occasionally find beautiful, classical statues with graceful figures and lovely faces sculpted in the distinctive rose pink clay of Impruneta.







Before I talk about the two pottery businesses I visited today, let me note the use of terra cotta in Impruneta.  It’s everywhere!  House number plates are terra cotta.  Mail boxes are terra cotta. Door bells are surrounded by terra cotta plates.  Local altars are terra cotta.


Of course window gardens, even those of cactus, are in terra cotta containers.



Many homes enjoy a terra cotta lion guarding the gate.


Sidewalks, stair treads, balustrades are all of terra cotta.


Close to the center of the sweet little village are two businesses within a easy walk. The first we visited was Corsiani Impruneta Terrecotte srcs on Via di Cappello.  You can visit this business virtually on their websites: and  .



The proprietor could not have been nicer or more welcoming to us, showing us a large hand-formed vessel he was making as well as the furnace in which the pots are fired.





Here’s a look at Corsiani’s vast array of products.



We next walked to another pottery: Antica Furnace Mariani M.I.T.A.L., sas, which you can also visit virtually at  .



Another vast yard, full of terra cotta treasures, awaits your visit!  But first, a hydrangea growing in a large vessel.


The containers produced by this pottery seem infinite, though of course I exaggerate.  I think you can get a sense of why: as a gardener and an art historian, I was almost hyperventilating from the choices available here!



In addition to garden vessels, this pottery also makes fabulous terra cotta reproductions of some famous art works.




A likeness of Cosimo I among the oleander blossoms.



There is literally something for everyone at this pottery.

My favorite items were some reproductions of famous artworks in nearby Florence:

Dontatello’s David:



Luca della Robbia:



Desiderio di Settignano:



And other Florentine notables:



And then there was the kitch!  The human-sized Eiffel Tower!



The human-sized Leaning Tower of Pisa:



Venice’s Rialto Bridge:



And, if you are going to do a bridge, you’ve got to do the Ponte Vecchio!  Certo!



Tremendously practical items were made of terra cotta, as in this downspout:



And unusual decorative items such as a fireplace surround, in terra cotta of course:



We had time to return to the center of the sweet, small piazza where we had a nice pranzo while gazing at the town’s main church.




You knew I would soon veer to art, didn’t you?

Oranges and Italian art:

Because of a combination of new artistic techniques and some apparently reasonable, but mistaken, assumptions about the history of citrus, oranges appeared frequently in paintings by any number of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.

In making the break from Byzantine scholasticism to the new humanism of the Renaissance, artists began setting their religious figures against naturalistic backgrounds. Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills.

Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

In his “Maestà,” the Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna showed Jesus entering Jerusalem through the streets of Siena, past orange trees in full fruit.

Fra Angelico painted Jesus resting under an orange tree.

It was almost unthinkable for a great master to do a “Flight into Egypt” without lining the route with orange trees.

A “Last Supper” was incomplete without oranges on the table, although there is no mention of oranges in the Bible.

Titian’s “Last Supper,” which hangs in the Escorial, shows oranges with fish.

A Domenico Ghirlandaio “Last Supper” goes further: a mature orange grove is depicted in murals behind the Disciples.

The deterioration of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” has been too extensive for any oranges in it to be identified, but in all likelihood, according to Tolkowsky, they were there.

Most painters thought of the Annunciation as occurring indoors, and Paolo Veronese, for one, moved orange trees indoors to authenticate the scene, setting the plants in trapezoidal pots, of the type in which orange trees were grown in his time in northern Italy.

Fra Angelico also used orange trees to give a sense of the Holy Land to his “Descent from the Cross,” which was otherwise set against the walls of Florence, and, like many of his contemporaries, when he painted the Garden of Eden he gave it the appearance of a citrus grove.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in a family chapel of the Medici show Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar looking less like three wise kings from the East than three well-fed Medici, descending a hill that is identifiable as one near Fiesole, dressed as an Italian hunting party, and passing through stands of orange trees bright with fruit.

Actually, Gozzoli’s models for the magi were Lorenzo de’ Medici; Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople; and John Palaeologus, Emperor of the East.



The orange tree was more than a misplaced landmark. It was also a symbol of the Virgin, erroneously derived from an earlier association that medieval theologians had established between Mary and the tall cedars of Lebanon.

Thus, countless paintings of the Madonna or of the Madonna and Child were garlanded with orange blossoms, decorated with oranges, or placed in a setting of orange trees.

Mantegna, Verrochio, Ghirlandaio, Correggio, and Fra Angelico all complemented their Madonnas with oranges.

Sandro Botticelli, in his “Madonna with Child and Angels,” set his scene under a tentlike canopy thickly overhung with the branches of orange trees full of oranges.

In the Neo-Latin of the Renaissance, oranges were sometimes called medici— an etymological development that had begun with the Greek word for citron, or Median apple.

It is no wonder, therefore, that in art and interior decoration the Medici themselves went in heavily for oranges. In Florence, oranges are painted all over the ceilings of the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

The Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici was one of the world’s earliest collectors of citrus trees, and in Tolkowsky’s view the five red spheres on the Medici coat of arms were almost certainly meant to represent oranges.

When Botticelli painted his “Primavera,” under a commission from the family, he shamelessly included Giuliano de’ Medici as the god Mercury, picking oranges.

Botticelli also painted his “Birth of Venus” for the Medici.

It was Venus, and not the Hesperides, according to a legend current at the time, who had brought oranges to Italy.

Botticelli’s model was Simonetta dei Cattanei, wife of Marco Vespucci and Giuliano de’ Medici’s Platonic love. Simonetta came from Porto Venere, where Venus was alleged to have landed with the original oranges, so Botticelli painted her in the celebrated scallop shell bobbing on the gentle swells off Porto Venere, and lined the coast behind her with orange trees.

Giuliano’s son, Giulio de’ Medici, who became Pope Clement VII, commissioned Raphael to design a villa for him with a great double stairway leading to a sunken garden full of orange trees.

All this was bound to engage the envy of royalty in the north, and at the end of the fifteenth century, in an expedition often said to mark the dividing point between medieval and modern history, Charles VIII of France went to Italy intending to subdue the peninsula by force of arms. Instead, he fell in love with Italian art, architecture, and oranges. When he returned to France, every other man in his retinue was an Italian gardener, an Italian artist, or an Italian architect. Charles was going to transform the castles and gardens of France.

McPhee, John (2011-04-01). Oranges. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.



Della Robbia in America

The 19th-century aesthete, Walter Pater, once likened Luca della Robbia’s sculptures to “fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches.” These appealing creations, which still brighten the penumbras of Tuscan chapels, are highlighted in an exhibition now on view (through June 4) in D.C.. Della Robbia: Sculpting With Color in Renaissance Florence, at the National Gallery of Art,

Around 1440, Luca della Robbia, the talented Florentine sculptor in marble and bronze, turned his attention to creating in glazed terra cotta. He achieved a result that has been a part of the ambience of Tuscany ever since. This special work was a brand of glazed terra-cotta sculpture that was physically durable, graphically strong and technologically inimitable. (The exact methods for producing it remain a mystery to this day.)

Luca, the art dynasty’s founder, was accustomed to praise. In 1436, when Luca was in his mid-30s, Leon Battista Alberti ranked him one of the five most inventive Florentines, along with Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Masaccio. At the time, Luca was coming off the triumph of his “Cantoria,” a set of carved marble panels of singing children done for the organ loft of the Florence cathedral. What Alberti couldn’t know was that Luca would soon shift from sculpting figures in stone to molding them in clay, and with that to even greater fame. And by using a medium no one else was interested in, Luca could invent an instantly recognizable brand.




The Della Robbia technique involved firing the clay twice, the second time with glazes that produced a smooth, shiny, opaque and often brilliant palette of white, blue, green, yellow and purple.



Luca the elder, who lived to be over 80 years old, invited his nephew Andrea into the business, and Andrea’s children continued the family tradition, some of them in France, well into the middle of the 16th century. Glazed terra cotta was made into free-standing sculptures in the round relief; relief sculptures that could be hung on a wall; flat plaques sturdy enough to be placed outdoors; and small household objects that were affordable to a wide range of consumers. Production of sculpture using this technique lasted only about a century before its secrets were lost. Some of the most familiar images today of Renaissance Italy, Della Robbia sculptures have retained their original color and shine over the centuries.

Visitors to Tuscany will be familiar with the look of the Della Robbia, especially the rich cerulean blue and fine-porcelain whites of the early pieces by Luca and Andrea. More colors were added as different members of the family expanded the range and ambition of the shop, responding in particular to the styles and expressive language of contemporary painters.

But there is a habit of putting the Della Robbia family production into a neat little box, separating their work from the mainstream of Italian Renaissance art as not quite fully sculpture such as those that Michelangelo would produce, nor as expressive or fine as paintings by Filippo Lippi, Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto or Leonardo da Vinci — all of whom may have influenced or inspired Della Robbia designers.

The same thing happens when visiting American museums, where one often encounters a stray Della Robbia piece in the Renaissance galleries. The eye notes its presence with pleasure, but rarely engages with it as deeply as with other works of the period. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the longer history of glazed ceramics, the tchotchke effect of associating cheap figurines from lesser antique stores with these early and often magisterial essays in the form. Even Michelangelo, who considered sculpture proper to be about the removal of material to find form rather than the building up and modeling characteristic of working with clay, disparaged the medium.

The current exhibition in Washington, D. C. provides a context for the della Robbia style, and provides an excellent opportunity to see the full range of what the Della Robbia artists and their competitors produced.

This exhibition, which opens Sunday and is billed as the first major U.S. show devoted to Della Robbia, began in Boston and features some 40 works, across the full range of what was made.

Above a door frame in the main corridor of the National Gallery’s West Building is a spectacular lunette by Giovanni Della Robbia, showing the Resurrection of Christ; outside the entrance to the exhibition, in protective cases, are smaller statuettes that demonstrate how powerfully these works can speak at a more domestic scale, including a touching bust of a boy by Andrea, whose depictions of children are exceptional among artists of the age.

But it’s in the first room of the exhibition proper that you encounter the full continuum of artistic expression and decorative functionality that is one of the most difficult facts to process for modern audiences grappling with the Renaissance. On the walls are two coats of arms, which weren’t exactly mass-produced, but were made in great numbers, with purchasers requesting their institution’s logo or insignia as a custom order, and then adding to it standard moldings or decorative garlands to fancy it up. The use of ceramic molds, the easy workability and the relative cheapness of clay, meant that glazed terra cotta was an accessible, durable, mass-market form. But these two functional works keep company with what is a masterpiece in the medium, a masterpiece by any definition in any age: Luca della Robbia’s “The Visitation,” made around 1445 for a church in Pistoia, not far from Florence.

“The Visitation” was made for the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, about 30 miles from Florence, it’s a three-dimensional, near-lifesize two-figure tableau illustrating the moment in the Gospel of Luke when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, meets her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant, her child being John the Baptist. In the story, Elizabeth feels the child in her womb stir with joy. In the sculpture, she kneels before Mary to acknowledge her as the mother of God.


Assembled from four pieces, “The Visitation” depicts a standard scene for artists of the day, the story of the Virgin Mary’s encounter with her older cousin Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant. The older woman kneels in front of Mary, who looks down tenderly and embraces her kinswoman, who will bear St. John the Baptist.

Luca’s depiction of the women, rendered in white, is deeply touching, and the impact is only heightened by the drama embedded in the construction of the statues. This image of two women, who share a human present (sorority, maternity) and cosmic future that only they — and now we, as witnesses — know, has layered religious and secular implications. But psychological subtly is what makes it moving, conveyed by posture and exchanges of touch, and by the contrast between Mary’s dreamy, half-seeing glance and the older woman’s beseechingly earnest effort to make their eyes meet.

And with this work Luca establishes a formal look that will be his signature: naturalistic figures covered in a creamy-white glaze that glows like moist skin and projects an impression of purity. The flawless coating also helps disguise the fact that this sculpture, which looks so completely of a piece, was too large to be fired whole in a kiln, and was composed in four sections, which can still be disassembled and then seamlessly interlocked.

Fired in four pieces and expertly fitted together, the two forms divide the embracing arms and hands so that Mary’s hands are attached to the sleeves of Elizabeth’s dress, and Elizabeth’s hands encircle the back of Mary’s gown. When they are placed next to each other, you hardly notice the gap between the arms and hands; but even if separated, each woman bears the impress of the other, as if the moment of their greeting has bound them together for eternity, no matter the vicissitudes of the four pieces of terra cotta over the years.

The exhibition also shows how, as the workshop continued to keep up with fashions and changing markets, it took a colorful direction, with unglazed clay standing in for skin, and a profusion of colors and details aiming at the narrative and dramatic power of painting. A set of three saints from around 1550, by Santi Buglioni (who headed a competing shop that also made glazed terra cotta), is presented as the “swan song” of the form, a late tour de force that captures the veins in their hands and the wrinkles around their eyes, creating an ensemble of charismatic and passionate forms. A tabernacle from the 1470s, with a small metal door for the sacramental bread in the center, creates a genuinely illusionist architectural space, with two angels present on both sides.

The exhibition ends with the figure of an adoring angel, reminiscent of Leonardo, made by Luca della Robbia the Younger, around 1510 or 1515. The exhibition emphasizes the Della Robbia connection to other artists, and how far the shop had come since Luca’s early designs in white and blue.

White gold: Richard-Ginori porcelains

When porcelains were first introduced in Europe from China, the substance was known as “white gold” for its value because of its toughness, strength relative to all other known types of pottery.



In 1735, the Marquis Carlo Ginori, driven by an interest in the advent of European production of “white gold,” founded his porcelain manufactory in the town of Doccia in Sesto Fiorentino, near Florence in Tuscany.  

After an initial experimental period, during which he imported Chinese porcelain samples, Ginori engaged two Viennese painters, J.C.W. Anreiter and his son Anton, with Gaspare Bruschi employed as chief modeler.

By 1740 Doccia had a monopoly of porcelain making in Tuscany and in 1746 began public sales. The product was a grayish, hard-paste porcelain made from local clay, with a glaze lacking in brilliance; a finer, white paste was adopted later.

Early wares were decorated by stencil, a rare process that was to give way to a fine range of painted colors.

The Manufactory of Doccia, as it was originally known, remained on this site until 1955.



1779 An era that gives birth to some of Richard Ginori’s best known forms and decorations. Combined with elegant centrepieces, they accessorize many a famous banquet in important palazzi and ville. The woven pattern is introduced, still a must- have in the collection today. The dawn of the nineteenth century brings with it new technologies and gold decorative solutions to fuel the taste for luxury.


1850 The arrival of the international expositions and the fashion for naturalistic taste offers the Manufactory the opportunity to expand. Scenes of insects nestling among floral elements animate tableware, meanwhile the academic sculptor Urbano Lucchesi brings themes of theatrical literature, fantasy objects and the Macchiaioli school of painting into the Manufactory.


1896 Now known now as the Manufacture Richard Ginori, a major expansion in artistic and industrial manufacturing activities lead to the successful development of two innovative patents: the oven-proof Pirofilia, (c. 1897-1898) and developed expressly for scientific laboratories, Euclide porcelain (c. 1940).

1923 The architect and designer Giò Ponti is appointed as artistic director, and the Manufactory brings to the European scene new decorative designs in line with the styles of the era.


1954 Manufacture Richard Ginori interprets the new functionality of the everyday life style. Colonna, with its stackable and essential design is introduced under the artistic direction of Giovanni Gariboldi.

1985 As tastes and lifestyles evolve, the Manufactory turns to the creative talents of the great Italian architects and designers of the time: Franco Albini, Franca Helg & Antonio Piva, Sergio Asti, Achille Castiglioni, Gabriele Devecchi, Candido Fior, Gianfranco Frattini, Angelo Mangiarotti, Enzo Mari and Aldo Rossi.

2013 The renaissance of the Manufactory Richard Ginori begins. The Manufactory is acquired by Gucci and Alessandro Michele is appointed artistic director. Today, just as 280 years ago, it represents excellence in creativity, innovation and the hand-made in Italy.

From China to Italy and back again.

The circle of life.



Porcelain, commonly known in English as “china,” was first produced around 2000 years ago in China.  It was coveted in Europe after its introduction there by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD).  The Ming Dynasty controlled much of the porcelain trade via the Silk Road. In 1517, Portuguese merchants began direct trade by sea with the Ming Dynasty, and in 1598, Dutch merchants followed.



The Doccia porcelain manufactory, at Doccia near Florence, was founded in 1735 by marchese Carlo Ginori near his villa. Now known as Richard-Ginori, (following its merger with Società Richard of Milan), as of February, 2013 it was acquired by Gucci.


Back to China:

Gucci plans  improve the factory in Florence, concentrate on high-end products, and sell products under its name in luxury markets such as China.