400 BC

The Ceramics of Oristano

Unioncamere

“In the city of Oristano, the heirs of the historic pottery school skilfully model clay to give form and colour to genuine works of art”

Historical Background

The manufacture of ceramics in Oristano is linked to the geological characteristics of the area. 

The city is located between two large ponds near the mouth of the Tirso, where the clay component of the soil has provided the raw material for the production of various forms of pottery from Neolithic times to the present day. 

The most ancient examples are now preserved in the rooms of the Antiquarium Arborense, the city museum that houses the main collections formed over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century. 

These include ceramics ranging from the Neolithic period and the pre-Nuragic cultures of the 4th and 2nd millennium BC up to medieval times.

The production is quite varied, with numerous examples of household utensils, liturgical containers, globular jars, pintaderas used to decorate sacred loaves, and askoid jars and flasks of various shapes, reflecting a more oriental style.

Detail of the Bonacatu Sanctuary gable, with typical pottery decorations.

There is no lack of testimonies from the early middle ages, accurately confirmed by numerous oil lamps found in funerary contexts, which attest to the relationship with Christian worship and the Byzantine liturgy.

In the years around 1000 AD, with the assimilation of Sardinia into the Italian cultural sphere, the habit of decorating the facades of Romanesque churches with ceramic bowls is noted.

Although in some cases these products were imported, it is nevertheless remarkable how many churches that have preserved the cavities or fragments of these bowls throughout the Oristano area, such as the Sanctuary of Nostra Signora di Bonacatu in Bonarcado. 

The ceramics seen there are the result of neo-Romanesque reintegration, although an interesting popular tradition still links them to an anecdote.

Legend has it that during the feast of the Madonna of Bonacatu, a “Moorish” crockery vendor blasphemed and at once a mighty wind began to blow. His dishes were swept upwards and remained attached to the facade, to serve as a warning to the faithful who came there on pilgrimage.

Ceramic decorations on the cathedral bell tower

The earliest written reference to the presence of potters in Oristano dates from the fifteenth century, in a register from the Monastery of Santa Chiara. 

A century later, the historian Giovanni Fara mentions the presence of a “suburb” set aside for the “figoli”, i.e. ceramic craftsmen.In 1692, the role of ceramic art was formalised by the statute of a guild, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and based in the Church of the Misericordia. 

The statute laid down the professional and ethical criteria for the potters and dictated rules on the intended uses and specific features of the products. 

Particularly successful products included iridescent tiles used for decorating domes, as well as water jugs with elegant shapes, high shoulders and elbow-shaped handles that were almost level with the spout. Some potters specialised in producing “extraordinary” objects, now known as “bride’s pitchers”. 

These were masterpieces of moulding and sculpture that normally featured motifs from a repertoire religious, including the legendary history of the Governess Eleonora d’Arborea.

Multi-coloured decorations on the roof of the Church of the Carmine

During the 19th century, the ceramic production area established itself in the “Su Brugu” district, extending across the south eastern part of the city, with the church of Sant’Efisio, where the guild was now based, as its new point of reference.

The first School of Applied Arts in Sardinia was founded in Oristano in 1925, under the direction of Francis Ciusa, a young artist who had been awarded the first prize at the Venice Biennale in 1907 and made a name for himself over the following years through the artistic development of Sardinian ceramics. 

The School of Applied Arts had a short life. Despite its closure in 1929, the legacy of Ciusa’s artistic charisma was not only preserved by the local artists and craftsmen, but prepared the way for the creation of a professional training school (1929-1939) and, after the Second World War, a School of Ceramic Art.

The State Art Institute was not established until 1961, and is now an art school named after the painter Carlo Contini. It trains and educates emerging artists and promotes the renowned art of ceramics.

Production stages

After the clay has been selected and impurities removed, it is kneaded to make it smooth and remove any air bubbles. It is then shaped using various techniques to give the desired object its form and structure. 

One of the most commonly techniques is the pottery wheel, on which the clay is shaped by hand as it turns on a rotating plate. The potter’s hands need to exert sufficient pressure to counteract the centrifugal force of the wheel and he art and skill of the craftsman are seen in the creation of a perfect finished shape.

Another characteristic production process is the coil technique, which involves the use and assembly of cylindrical clay rolls arranged in layers and smoothed to form a compact surface.

Shaping pottery on a wheel

After shaping, once the object is partially dry (known as “leather hardness”) it is ready for finishing, which is critical for removing any imperfections, refining it and ensuring uniform thickness for proper drying and to prevent the product from cracking in the kiln. 

During the finishing stage, the artefact can be decorated with ornaments and applications before sponging, which is necessary to ensure that all the surfaces are smooth. 

 At this stage the object can also be engobed (a painting technique for decorating terracotta and ceramics) with liquid clay of a different colour than the base and decorated with the sgraffito technique.

Once it has completely dried, it is then fired in the kiln for the first time, at a temperature of around 980°C. This produces what is commonly called a “biscuit”, to which colours are then added in the form of enamel or paint.

This is followed by a second firing, in which the powdery enamels undergo a chemical and physical transformation, vitrifying and making the object waterproof and ready for use.

Credits: Story

Curator — Camera di Commercio di Oristano

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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