Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The terracotta potteries of Impruneta II

Mario Mariani Artigiano Terrecotte

Mario Mariani's kiln and workshop stand out from the others for two principal reasons. First, his is the only kiln left at Impruneta which adheres to certain old techniques and styles: the workshop displays the traditional design with the furnace on the ground floor, the raised loggia leading to the oven or kiln on the first floor, the courtyard outside and the pile of raw earth out back; plus, and this is the most significant: the kiln is wood-fired instead of gas-fired.

entrance to Mariani's workshop

Mariani's is literally the only kiln left in Impruneta which fires with wood in the traditional way. This means that the final product is extremely durable and light apricot in colour, different from items baked in a gas-fired kiln which are much darker. In addition, Mariani works alone. He has no apprentices and helpers only come when he needs extra hands to unload pots from the kiln or for other heavy jobs. These days he fires up the kiln three or four times a year. 

Still Life with Chair
We are lucky to be the only visitors, so Mariani kindly leads us around his workshop describing his work. The potter, who possesses a distinctive aquiline profile and sharp light blue eyes, is passionate about and justly proud of his craft. 

His explanations are punctuated by witticisms, original sayings, entertaining history lessons of doubtful veracity and extreme if not zany views.

Mariani in his original office where cured hams share space with a photo of the potter when doing his military service, and a head of Dante

inside the kiln; note date on mantel

The date scratched on the furnace is 1860 but it is not hard to appreciate that these sites and these techniques have been used for centuries, if not millennia. Mariani uses cypress and parasol pine fronds and branches and any other good burning wood for his fires. All wood is cut and gathered locally.

the fuel: cypress, cherry and pine here
The kiln above the furnace is filled to the brim with raw, air-dried pots which are stone-grey in colour.  It takes 24 hours for the heat in the furnace to build up to the desired 930 degrees Celsius, and another 12 hours to stabilize this temperature. Mariani gauges the temperature according to the colour of the pots; he eschews the thermometer. 

the kiln with some carefully packed pots
Two days after firing, the pots are removed and washed. The transformation from dull grey raw earth to apricot coloured terracotta mottled with white seems almost miraculous.

the kiln when empty

looking up inside the chimney
We end up visiting the workshop backwards, from the finished product to the raw material, so let me reverse this order and start at the beginning. As Mariani declares, almost defiantly, the art of terracotta relies on four elements: earth, water, fire and elbow grease (terra, acqua, fuoco ed olio di gomito), athough he may as well have listed five to include air, since it is vital to the drying process.

So: earth. A huge pile of what looked like abandoned building rubble: grey earth full of stones and covered with sprouting grasses, turned out to be the raw material, the materia prima, the raison d'être of the entire terracotta industry in this area.

Mariani sifts that great heap of virgin earth several times over himself and leaves it to settle in a covered area. His terracotta ends up more speckled and granular than terracotta made with industrially refined earth.  

the mountain of semi-cleaned earth; outside is an even larger mound of what looks like grass-infested rubble
Mariani uses a few basic machines such as an automated belt for loading the raw earth, an automatic sifter and a motorized clay mixer. The craftsmen of Impruneta use a mixer resembling a giant Sunbeam electric mixer such as the one my mother used when I was a child.

mechanized belt for transporting sifted earth up to pottery workshop

The earth will be sifted again before being blended with water. The amount of water depends on the articles being made: more for finer items, less for bricks, for example. 

finely-sifted earth; everything in the workshop is covered in this fine grey dust

the clay mixer
Water is used again during the process to glue parts together, to smooth surfaces, to mould, clean and adjust.

the plastic is left around the drying pots' middles to keep moist the area where the crests will be applied

Large pots such as the classic wine and oil containers called orci (orchee), big vases known as conche (conckay) and many other items, are fashioned entirely by hand using the coil method. Only about 10-15cm are built up per day since each layer has to dry partially before the next one is added. A large pot of about 60cm diameter or more takes many days to be completed. 

conca and orcio
An interesting detail: the craftsman applies each layer by moving around the pot backwards. He starts with a handful of clay and gradually attaches it in one smooth gesture. The marvel is that when he has completed the circle there is no clay left in his hand. He judges  precisely how much to help himself to each time and how to make that amount 'come out even'. The rim is always perfect. This is a testimony to decades of experience, an expert eye and hand, the utter mastery of his craft.

Mariani signs each item Mario Mariani Impruneta in his own distinctive cursive.

We are fortunate to witness the fashioning of one of the crests to be attached to three or four pots that Mariani was making for an old and famous Tuscan family. The process is better told in pictures. 

cleaning the crest mould

working the clay prior to pressing into mould

pressing clay into mould

final press and smoothing off excess clay

preparing to ease removal
removing clay crest by firmly tapping mould

crest falls from mould
perfectly formed crest


The crests (three per pot) are applied to the drying pot using a triangular wooden frame to place them evenly.

The mould is made in plaster by a sculptor. These moulds are valuable and jealously preserved; as at the Masini pottery, some are historic and have been used for centuries. 

some of Mariani's moulds
Once dry, the grey pots and other items are carefully stacked in the oven. As mentioned, firing takes about one and a half days, cooling at least another two days. Finally the objects are removed from the oven, washed and prepared for sale or shipping.

a corner of the workshop: timeless

handmade bricks: what a luxury these days
IMPRUNETA VANNI: this orcio dates back to the 17th century and stands proudly in Mariani's courtyard.

At the end of our visit Mariani offers around glasses of prosecco; this hospitable gesture is the echo of a celebration which takes place when the pots have been fired. A highlight of Mario Mariani's productive year and his very individual pottery is apparently his locally famous dinner. Friends are regaled with typical dishes featuring the peposo alla fornacina, a rich, peppery, beef stew traditionally baked in the kiln itself. No better way to celebrate his extraordinary, unique production.

Mario Mariani lives right next door to his kiln which is in Via di Cappello 29, Impruneta. Tel: 055-2011950


  1. A fascinating account, lovingly written and superbly illustrated, of a true and rare ('Mariani works alone', says it all)master craftsman of the old school.

  2. Thanks for the comment, as ever, but I need to point out that while Mariani is indeed a master craftsman of the old school in terms of his artistic production, the fact that he works alone is not 'old school' at all. A master craftsman in the past, as Agricola knows well, would have had journeymen and apprentices under him. While admiring our Lone Potter of Impruneta it seems sad that, barring miracles, he will in fact be the last potter at Impruneta to work in this largely traditional way. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  3. I had the urge to see if Mario was still potting and thanks to your blog I can see he still working. I went to his studio in 1992 when his father (?) was still alive and helping him in his eighties nonetheless! I took pictures of his work (slides) and him showing his methods to me with a cigar in mouth to boot. Thanks for posting this blog on a little known legend in ceramics.

  4. So glad this was helpful. Mario is a miracle. Not sure how much longer he can go on, even though he is still fit and has plenty of orders. But it must be hard working alone. Thanks for your comment, our first 'public' one!

  5. We had the honour of attending one of the famous dinners over 20 years ago. Mario Mariani with his mother at his side sat at the head of the table silhouetted against the kiln mouth where the stew was warming. About 20 guests were invited, seated on each side of the long table. The stew was indeed spicy, and there was much laughter at what I suppose were s Mariani's wiiticisms. We returned the next day and bought a beautiful large garden pot decorated with swags of fruit which accompanied us on our travels round Europe for a further month. We stowed the family clothes in it in the boot of our car. It still adorns our garden - each year planted with flowers of the season. I hear from a friend who visited Impruneta earlier this year that he is still working.

  6. This is the best description that I have found so far and will try to visit. We have a house called Casa Al Forno in Tuscany and I was always told that the Forno referred to a bread oven which the house did have. However, on greater recent historical information, we find that in 1369, our house was there and seems to have been a brick oven. There is an area of old brick rubble in the garden , under cipresse trees, but most interestingly, we have an old arch ( not cantina) in the house with a small rough vent in the wall behind it and I think it was a kiln. So Casa Al fornace. The area is settled back from Roman to Etruscan and is rich in clay. On my exploration to find out more


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