If you went on holiday to Italy this year, you may have come back with a plate, a mug or a jug — an item or two of the painted pottery still handmade (at least sometimes) by craftsmen and women, mostly in Umbria, but also in the Marche, and which you can see in the shops in Siena and Florence and in other places in Tuscany.

If you went on holiday to Italy this year, you may have come back with a plate, a mug or a jug — an item or two of the painted pottery still handmade (at least sometimes) by craftsmen and women, mostly in Umbria, but also in the Marche, and which you can see in the shops in Siena and Florence and in other places in Tuscany.

There is a continuous tradition of manufacturing ceramics in Italy stretching back to the Middle Ages, and although almost completely forgotten today, at the end of the 19th century and in the opening years of the 20th, pre-Renaissance medieval pottery was highly sought after and very valuable. Looking at some of the examples that appeared in a recent exhibition organised by Professor Lucio Riccetti in Perugia and Orvieto in Umbria, you can understand why: the designs are simple and beautiful, with images that are primitive and powerful. The medieval artisans had a palette of two colours: green and brown. But they produced some extraordinary results with their limited resources.

Orvieto, the hilltop city in southern Umbria where the medieval popes had a summer residence (the papal palace — it looks more like a castle — still stands next to the cathedral), was a particularly important centre, and 120 years ago, medieval pottery from there was in high demand. This was the era when American collectors, such as the enormously wealthy banker J.P. Morgan, were busy hoovering up everything available in Italy, including hundreds of pictures, manuscripts and sculptures. They pushed up prices for works of art, including pieces of pottery, in spectacular fashion. The situation got so bad — there was so much material moving out of Italy and into America — that, in 1909, the Italian Parliament finally got round to passing a law prohibiting the export of any part of Italy’s artistic and cultural heritage. Like most laws in Italy, that one would turn out to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. But it was at least official recognition that there was a serious problem.

Part of what had started to wake up Italy’s officialdom to the haemorrhaging of the nation’s treasures was the experience of the equivalent of a gold rush in Orvieto in the last decades of the 19th century: scores of treasure-hunters converged on the city armed with spades and started digging in search of ceramics. Curiously, what sparked off the frenzy was the discovery of an obscure document: a Bull of Pope Boniface VIII that had been promulgated in 1299.

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Thirteenth-century Orvieto obviously had hygiene problems even more serious than the average medieval town, for Boniface’s Bull had forbidden the inhabitants from throwing anything out of their houses on to the streets. It obliged every householder in the city to dig a hole, either in the house itself or in its garden, deep enough to hold the house’s refuse and rubbish when closed.

Enterprising dealers and treasure-hunters immediately realised that the consequences of that law would have been that Orvieto’s rubbish tips were filled with shards of medieval pottery, and perhaps complete pieces, too. They started digging up gardens and floors in search of medieval rubbish — and evidently they found plenty, and, with it, lots of shards of medieval pottery. By the time the local authorities woke up to what was going on, and attempted to produce a comprehensive survey of Orvieto’s medieval rubbish tips, it was too late: almost all of them had been excavated, and thoroughly despoiled, by treasure-hunting amateurs. Whatever they contained had been lost for ever.

Treasure-hunters and dealers usually ‘restored’ the ceramics they found so as to make them sellable. Frequently, a plate, jug or bowl marketed as a piece of pottery from 13th-century Orvieto was actually almost entirely reconstructed with new pieces made in the late-19th century by local craftsmen. Italy’s art experts eventually became wise to the practice, and the reputation of ‘Orvietoware’ fell sharply. The dealers became alarmed, and looked for a way to re-establish its reputation.

In 1909, one of them, Alexandre Imbert, thought he had found the answer. Imbert was a Frenchman living in Rome who had managed to become J.P. Morgan’s agent in Italy. Imbert sold Morgan hundreds of works of art, including paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli and Hans Holbein — as well as a collection of medieval pottery from Orvieto. The pottery later turned out to have been made in the late-19th century, although the American museum to which Morgan donated the pottery, and which then later identified it all as fake, states that ‘there is nothing to indicate that Imbert knew [the pottery] was not period’. But who knows?

Imbert’s strategy for re-establishing the authenticity of Orvieto’s medieval ceramics was to commission Pericle Perali to write an illustrated catalogue of the 50 most important pieces of medieval pottery from Orvieto he had on his inventory, and that he hoped to sell. Although relatively young, Perali had the necessary expertise for the job: he was the man employed by the local council to survey publicly owned property in the city in the hope that he would find some examples of medieval ceramics that could be exhibited in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo — in the event, he found next to nothing: the amateur treasure-hunters had already been everywhere.

Perali produced a scholarly work, now regarded as the first and one of the best on the subject. Imbert was so impressed he put his name on the title page, and kept Perali’s name off it — although to be fair to Imbert, Ceramics from Orvieto from the 13th and 14th Centuries, as the book was called, was not for sale. It was given to a small group of cognoscenti, of whom by far the most important was J.P. Morgan, to whom it was dedicated, and who received a special copy with hand-painted illustrations of the relevant works.

Morgan, however, seems to have been completely unimpressed. He never even acknowledged his receipt of Ceramics from Orvieto. And ‘the American Medici’ didn’t buy any more ceramics from Orvieto — from Imbert or from anyone else. Morgan wasn’t the only one to be sceptical: in London and Paris, museum directors were turning away when offered ‘ceramics from Orvieto’. They were convinced they were all fakes — and if there were examples of the genuine article, it was impossible to identify them definitively. The market crashed, and with it the reputation of Orvieto’s medieval ceramics. Imbert’s collection was unsold and indeed seemed to have disappeared entirely until it fetched up in a museum in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1951. Perali helped to put together a collection of medieval ceramics from Orvieto in the 1920s, which was donated to a museum in Rome — where it was promptly forgotten about until 1994, when it was rediscovered, in a terrible condition after the shelves on which it had been placed had collapsed.

Orvieto’s beautiful pottery doesn’t deserve its ignominious fate. The V&A in London has a choice collection, most of which languishes without being looked at. It would be wonderful if the museum could be persuaded to mount a special exhibition. Professor Lucio Riccetti would, I am sure, be only too happy to help.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Arts review, Ceramics, Clay, Plates, Pottery