Visiting The Ceramics Museum In Savona, Italy

Last week I had the pleasure to attend an exhibition at the Savona Ceramics Museum (Museo della Ceramica di Savona). Located in an ancient building called “Palazzo Monte di Pietà”, which is part of Savona’s historic district (for those of you who don’t know, Savona is an Italian city by the sea in the region of Liguria, North-West Italy), the museum hosts a permanent collection of Ligurian ceramics, mainly from the cities of Savona and Albisola, of about a thousand works, from the 15th century to modern times. The collection stretches over four floors of the Palazzo and it is organized into separate collections, alternating type and chronology.

The museum is currently holding a temporary exhibition on the first floor called “Superb Ceramics: Bartolomeo Guidobono and the splendor of the Savona Baroque”; Guidobono, son of Gio Antonio, a renowned painter and decorator of majolica, began his apprenticeship in his father’s shop at the age of twelve. His artistic activity followed two directives: his primary field of application was painting, but he also contributed to a renewal of the decoration in the Baroque style in his ceramics.

Ligurian ceramics – Bartolomeo Guidobono retrospective

“Baroque” was used to indicate the dominating aesthetic taste in visual arts in the first half of the 1600s, after the Renaissance. The baroque style expanded in all arts during the 1600s and for a good part of the 1700s, before the advent of Neoclassicism and the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. The French adjective “baroque” originates from Portuguese (“barroco”) and it refers to the irregularity of baroque pearls, so the term acquires the sense of “strange”, “bizarre”, “abnormal”. Its main characteristics are the research for the scenic effect, for magnificence and stupor. With Baroque art, people experimented a new idea and representation of space, that now appeared open and multi-centered. The new taste declined in various forms depending on the geographical and cultural context; the Italian region of Liguria was a true centre for the international diffusion of this style. Regarding ceramics, the “istoriato barocco” decoration themes are tied to mythological, religious and chivalric stories.

Guidobono is remembered as one of the most important representatives of late Baroque Ligurian painting; according to the museum’s portfolio, “his works are populated by figures with sweet physiognomies and darting draperies that accompany the declining phase of Baroque sumptuousness in its transition towards the bubbling lightness of Rococo graces.” Guidobono also created cycles of frescoes and canvases for various churches, working between Savona, Turin and Genoa.

A scene from Ovid’s Metamorphosis – Vase manufactured in Savona
Majolica Ornamental Vases, 17th century – Savona City Hall collection

The istoriato barocco style established itself as a type of majolica decoration, a result of the successful relationship formed between painting and ceramics during the 17th century. Mainly but not exclusively painted in blue and white, it favored the representation of a noble repertoire, including mythology, literature and biblical history, and using sketches, prints or illustrations.

The entire piece of pottery is conceived as a “narrative surface” upon which deities, ancient warriors, female figures or knights appear, surrounded by groups of putti against backgrounds of cloudy skies, depicting landscapes with mountains encircled by nature. Domestic interiors are absent from the majority of these works.

The spreading of majolica ceramics, objects of daily use that also show top aesthetic value, is linked to the aristocratic patrons for whom they were created. Bartolomeo Guidobono brought the Ligurian Baroque to its highest level of expression, and his works are evidence of the great flourishing of this type of production, which established a thriving market all over the world thanks to the beauty of these creations.

Piatto Reale (Royal Plate), 17th century – Manufactured in Savona
Plates and Cup (“Stagnone”)
Stagnoni depicting “Madonna della Misericordia” + Six-bottle cooler, 17th century – Manufactured in Savona or Albisola
Guidobono’s Tulip Vase, 17th century – Manufactured in Savona

The term “taches noires” refers to terracotta pottery made for the tables of the lower classes, produced in Albissola from the 1730s. This production counted many millions of pieces annually and was widely commercialized in Italy and along the Western Mediterranean coast. It consists in a simple decoration of informal motifs, stripes and diagrams, made in manganese. The terracottas include different shapes which were sometimes produced using the moulds previously created for majolica. The production ranged from plates to oil-lamps, candlesticks, small sculptures and devotion statues. “Terraglia nera”, glazed in manganese brown, was destined for the production of items to decorate the homes of the bourgeoisie or the tables of the lower classes. This type of production includes allegorical groups with a Neoclassical touch.

Terracotta Plate and Cup, 18th century – Manufactured in Albisola
Terracotta Horses, 19th century – Manufactured in Albisola (Fondazione De Mari collection)

Two spacious rooms on the second floor encase the collection donated to the city of Savona by Prince Arimberto Boncompagni Ludovisi and his consort Princess Rossella. The prince was passionate about Ligurian ceramics and he acquired works all over Europe. His collection comprises over two hundred pieces, in blue and white or in polychrome, creating a complete repertoire of decorative styles from the Savona and Albisola tradition dating to the 17th and 18th century. In the first room we find royal plates, vases, perfume holders and pharmacy vases; the elegance and diversity of these pieces celebrate and document the craft of local potters and the activity of the various workshops. The adjoining room contains other artifacts typical of this historical period.

Ligurian Ceramics – Donated by Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi and his spouse Princess Rossella
Collection of Ligurian Ceramics – Donated by Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi
Religious objects donated by Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi

The history of Ligurian majolica between the 16th and 19th centuries is linked to that of the collection of hospital, convent and private pharmacies, for the conservation and distribution of medicinal formulations.

The ceramics exhibited in Room 10 were originally from the Old Pharmacy of the San Paolo hospital in Savona; the elegant decoration in blue and white is composed of birds and insects, clouds, vegetation elements, castles, angels and animals like horses and monkeys. The surface of each vase features the figure of Saint Paul and the supply is divided into seven types of vases; hydrias for water, flasks for keeping seeds, pill holders and vases for oily mixtures. Most of these items carry the brand with Savona’s coat of arm on the bottom, indicating the place they were made (probably in the workshop of Giuliano Salamone in 1666, as the initials GS found at the base of the ceramics refer to him). In some pieces it is possible to identify the brushwork of Gio Antonio (Bartolomeo Guidobono’s father), who collaborated with the workshop during that time.

Ceramics from the Old Pharmacy I
Ceramics from the Old Pharmacy II

The old apothecary from the San Paolo hospital I just mentioned is located on the third floor, where it virtually recreates the ancient room of the apothecary. The two adjacent rooms host a selection of works dating from the first decades of the 20th century which explore the work evolution of the manufacturers from Savona and Albisola during that period, when their style was deeply influenced by the international decorative art trends at the beginning of the 1900s (Art Déco, Rationalism and Futurism).

The Ligurian Futurist Group was set up in 1925, promoted by Tullio Mazzotti and his workshop Casa Mazzotti Giuseppe, with local artists and others from the Futurist centers of Milan and Turin who also adhered to the group.

In this area we can find works from artists like Antibo, Lorenzini and Dova, who worked in Savona and Albisola during the second half of the 20th century. Nicolaj Diulgheroff was one of the leading players of the movement on the Albisola scene, an architect and designer of Bulgarian origin who created many functional objects like the tea set. At the centre of the second hall there is also an impressive tree (Albero di Kaki by Maria Galfré); its magnificent foliage connects the last two floors.

Diulgheroff Tea Set for Six, 1932/33 – Manufactured by Giuseppe Mazzotti in Albissola Marina
Vittorio Agamennone Tiger, 1926/28 – Manufactured by Giuseppe Mazzotti in Albissola Marina
Ceramics from the Ligurian Futurist Group I
Ceramics from the Ligurian Futurist Group II
Albero di Kaki – Maria Galfré

The fourth floor is an open space filled with natural light which focuses on modern ceramics and hosts a series of beautiful works of about 30 international artists.

Starting from 2000, Attese Edizioni began organising a local network in the area of Savona in order to bring together designers, artists, potters, modellers, craftsmen and manufacturers along with critics and historians of contemporary art and design.

The main goal was to encourage interexchange between the region’s resources (the material of ceramics), design, contemporary art and digital craftsmanship to enhance and promote unique local features. These activities merged in the 2001, 2003 and 2005 editions of the Biennal of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, supported by Fondazione De Mari and in collaboration with the municipalities of Savona, Albisola Superiore, Albissola Marina and Vado Ligure, organizing a series of national and international events.

Many expositions were organized by cultural institutions like the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Madrid and La Triennale Design Museum in Milan. The room shows a significant selection of ceramic works of this collection put together by Attese Edizioni and created by contemporary artists and designers like Liam Gillick (Multiple Revision Structure, 3rd Biennal of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, 2006) with his series of simple glazed ceramic forms of both functional and aesthetic value.

Three Spheres by Alessandro Mendini was manufactured by the Department of Science for Architecture, University of Genoa. This vase consists of a number of spheres with varying diameters; visually the work refers to soap bubbles, when they remain attached to each other for a brief moment (this is what I thought when I first saw them, and the ceramic materials with a shining, mirror-like surface, really stand out).

Terrarist, Hugo Meert’s sculpture, is composed of little men shaped out of enameled ceramic that disintegrate the fruits of human labor (the vase) climbing up its walls holding small hammers with which they chip away at the edges to break them into bits. Terrarist was also presented at the “Ultra-body” exhibition in Milan (Castello Sforzesco).

One of the most interesting works in this section is Franco Raggi’s Joined Shoes, the philological reconstruction of an idea from 1975 by some artists who created improbable objects in the courtyard of an old house in Milan. The theme was “The body and constraints”; these useless objects conveyed the need to keep alive the dialogue between art and design, seeing the body as a primary tool and the objects as something meant to reestablish the idea of form/function relationship in a creative way. These shoes were made experimentally in clay and they propose the frontal fusion of two different shoes, preventing any possibility of walking, so the two people wearing them are forced into an inevitable confrontation. Franco Raggi reconstructed them in ceramic for the Biennale of Ceramics in Contemporary Art of 2006, an homage to the original project.

Terrarist – Hugo Meert, 2009 – Terracotta and glazes – Attese Edizioni
Multiple Revision Structure, Liam Gillick, 2006 – Studio Ernan Design, Albisola Superiore
Three Spheres I, I, III, IV – Alessandro Mendini, 2007 – Terracotta, enamels and noble metal, University of Genoa, Department of Science for Architecture – Attese Edizioni
Joined Shoes, Franco Raggi, 2006 – Philological reconstruction, Attese Edizioni

It was my first time visiting a museum in Liguria and I was glad to be surrounded by all this beauty and see something which was made many centuries ago but still preserved to this day.

Additional notes:

Thank you to the Savona Ceramics Museum (Museo della Ceramica di Savona) for providing insightful explanations on the day I attended the exhibition. The captions next to the works were very useful in reconstructing Guidobono’s activity and the Baroque historical period.

All pictures are my own.

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