A brown earthenware cylinder, 9 inches high, 4 inches across. An opening cut into one side, all the way down to the bottom. Small triangular holes on either side – most still holding white clay rods, an inch or so long, that protrude towards the inside where shadows reign. It bears the signs of its long life, fired and refired and like me no longer able to stand straight and proud. But perhaps all the more interesting. Signs of it being turned on the potter’s wheel. Signs of it’s having been used – but for what?
This is not what we had come to Vetralla for. But it was what I took home with me. Vetralla had beckoned with its coarse red-brown earthenware, decorated with a flourish of a flower, and I came away with a mystery object.
I already had the rustic pots and pitchers from Ficulle in my shop in Orvieto where I specialized in the traditional crafts of Italy. Ficulle. From figulus, potter. And that was what the town was known for, exploiting the abundant deposits of clay in the surrounding hills, some of which were even known as le crete, the clays, and looked like the Montana badlands.
I read somewhere that in the fourteenth century Simone Martini went out with a horse and a servant to draw the castles around Siena in hills “where not a blade of grass could grow” in preparation for painting his frescoes. The jugs and vessels in Lorenzetti’s Good Government fresco in Siena look like those the potters still make. Terracotta splashed with green and brown. Although the glaze then was lead based and who knows how many of the potters gradually succumbed to lead poisoning.
Now all that has changed but in many a farmhouse, the terracotta pitcher was still what you took down into the cellar to fill with cool wine from the barrel to accompany the dense homemade bread and the thin slices of marbled prosciutto, sliced so thin they were practically transparent, for that afternoon or morning snack. As Heidegger says, “by itself wine or water has no shape, until the potter makes a shape to contain it, giving shape to something that by itself has no shape.”
To be continued . . .