Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The terracotta potteries of Impruneta I

Fornace Masini

Masini's address, 57-59 via Fornaci: Kiln Street

When we began restoring Le Ripe our master builder told me in serious tones that we could choose whatever tiling we wanted for inside, but for outside it would have to be either from the local firm in Radda or from 'Ferrone', as he put it.
Any other material would simply not withstand our winter frosts.

That was when I first realized the importance of both the local raw material and the local producers. Just the other day friends took us to two historic but very different and distinctive potteries or kilns in the Ferrone area, at Impruneta to be precise.

Masini potter at work, photo from Masini archive

The town of Impruneta is a 45 minute drive from Le Ripe, towards Florence. Impruneta and surrounds have been famous for centuries for their terracotta works which, large and small, are dotted all around the area. Some produce bricks and tiles, others produce pots, many produce both as well as garden statues, ornaments, signs, even furniture: anything that can be made in terracotta.

Masini's Fornace or Kiln is our first stop. We are greeted by a courtyard full of terracotta items in all shapes and sizes. Cypresses and olives encircle the yards; the perfect setting.

terracotta paradise

pots and vases of all shapes and sizes; if they don't have it, they will make it for you

the ones in front are called 'orci', once used to store wine and oil

There is a vast range of different designs

Masini's work is very finely crafted

Masini's carefully written history of the terracotta of Impruneta reveals some fascinating facts: there is documented evidence of tile makers working in the area since at least 1098, and from 1308 a local guild regulated and protected the production of terracotta.

Did you know that the flat tiles of Brunelleschi's famous cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, made of a particular blend of baked earth (terracotta) was in fact manufactured by the potters of Impruneta? The solid yet light quality of the material was essential for the vault which has no supporting framework.

cupola Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, completed in 1436; tiles from Impruneta
Over many generations countless families of craftsmen have earned their living producing tiles, bricks, pots and works of art. Their handcraft is an art which continues to this day. To paraphrase Masini:  Mass-produced pots are not made in Impruneta at all: each piece is unique...and invites us to listen to its story.

a charming unfired hare, reminiscent of Dürer's painting

One of these families, the Vanni, famous particularly in the 17th century,  owned the kiln which the Masini family took over in 1939. About four or five potters work here today.

The earth is extracted locally in the area between the valleys of the Ema and Greve rivers, an area around Ferrone of about 240 square kilometres. It is composed of marlstone and what is called scaly clay, but the most important components are the iron oxide which gives the finished product its inimitable colour and calcium salts and carbonates which render it permeable. 

scaly clay

Interestingly, the local administration obliges the larger, industrial terracotta factories to supply the smaller artisanal workshops with the raw material they need. Which appears a very civilized and enlightened policy. 

The earth is kept outside in the sun and once the stones are cleared it is ground and sifted and stored under cover. The ratio of water to earth to create the clay is as much a question of experience as of science.

the raw earth, stored outside

pot moulds
Plaster moulds are used more nowadays to shape the pots: the clay is spread onto these, pressed and smoothed to the correct thickness. There are few craftsmen today skilled enough to use the coil method which is far more labour-intensive, but they are certainly to be found here (see also Part II). The items are left to dry for some time and then loaded into the kiln, piled one on top of the other, separated by special fire-proof supports.

orci drying out before being fired
drawing for orcio above 
another pot or vase drying out
former wood-fired kiln used for drying, channelling air from the gas-fired kiln

Below are some glimpses of the ground floor working areas which surround the two old kilns. These kilns are now used for drying the various items since the modern kiln is gas-fired. 


a typical festoon mould for pots
At the Masini works there are moulds dating back to the 17th century, since Masini took over from the heirs of the renowned and celebrated Vanni kiln.
the vaulted ceilings and ancient brick floors denote the oldest part of the building

Upstairs the workshop contains hundreds of moulds, items being prepared for the kiln and the workstations of some of the artisans.

pot with striking gargoyle

the two chimneys of the old kilns which must have heated the workshop very efficiently in winter although I dread to think what it was like in summer

artisan working on acanthus leaves on ornate conca

moulds, some going back to the 19th century, for making tlles of various shapes, as below

view of workshop with materials for decorations

contemporary and traditional styles

weathered pots are more prized than brand new ones: history is respected here
The pots are unique, beautiful and highly resistant to frost: the terracotta of Impruneta can withstand temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius. Masini's pottery is a member of the Association of Historical and Artistic Kilns of Impruneta (Associazione Fornaci Storiche ed Artistiche di Impruneta) whose trademark unites all the companies which maintain the particular, historic qualities of Impruneta terracotta.

 terracotta upupa epops - hoopoe - upupa
With thanks to the Fornace Masini's excellent little history of the terracotta of Impruneta, Earth, Water and Fire.


  1. I never appreciated how beautiful and varied pottery could present until I saw these photos of Masini terracotta en masse.

  2. Excellent article. I am visiting Impruneta next week and I hope we can visit the Masini Fornace.

    1. Thanks Susan. It is really worth the visit,but if you can, see also nearby Mariani's workshop, where everything is done completely by hand. He is probably the last surviving potter who works this way.


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