Umbrian Tiles

June 24, 2010 / Art & Archaeology
Castelviscardo, Umbria
fornacefedeli1“Here we still do everything by hand, placing the pieces in the wood fired kiln one by one. That’s 20,000 tiles in one go, and we do a quarter of a million a year! A million every 4 years. The wood fire creates the color effects and variations that make our terracotta (cooked earth) so precious”, says Piramo Fedeli, who carries his 78 years and his mysterious name with youthful vigor. His son Domenico laughingly says the name Piramo may derive from the Etruscan “Amopir”.

Domenico, son of Piramo-Amopir, is the grandson of another Domenico, great-grandson of still another Domenico and so on. He is the latest in a family that carries on this art for at least 5 generations and has produced at least 20,000,000 tiles by hand.

fornacefedeli2“Only 20 million, because up till 15 year ago we only worked in the summer” says Domenico; “winter was too cold. But in the summer we suffocate from the dust, and bake ourselves as well, continuously firing the oven. It is a kind of inferno. For the first 30 hours the temperature is not really high because the tiles have to dry out. Then, for 36 hours, the temperature is extreme: around 1000 degrees Celsius. Precisely 950”, says Piramo-Amopir, “and I don’t need a thermometer. I can tell by the color of the fire”.

Pianelle (floor and ceiling tiles) come out of the oven. There are also roof tiles and special pieces of all sizes and shapes. The Fedeli family (their name means “faithful” in English) keep the fede (faith) by honoring tradition. Their kiln, a deep pit dug into the hills of Castelviscardo, near Orvieto, has been in use since the Renaissance.

Some of the tiles gracing the antique buildings of Orvieto must come from this enchanted place. You can imagine hard working medieval artisans descending from palaces and churches to appear here, before your very eyes. If you’d like to see the firing and be taken back in time, you can inquire about firing dates by contacting Piramo via his website, fornacefedeli.com.

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Patricia Glee Smith

by Patricia Glee Smith

Accomplished artist and very involved archaeology aficionado based in Otricoli, Umbria. Click here to view her artwork.

8 Responses to “Umbrian Tiles”

  1. Mary jane

    Thanks for this note, Pat. My floor tiles come from Castel Viscardo but from another forno, Bernasconi. Some have animal (cat,weasel?) pawprints on them that show they were left out to dry on the windswept hillside before being put in the kiln.

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  2. Auguste Herrin

    Very interesting
    Pat Smith, also love your art work

    Hi to Monica

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  3. Marilyn Canna

    Fascinating article and family tradition. Love the artful way the tiles are left to dry (I assume) — like fingers splayed into fans. Thank you!

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  4. Gian Banchero

    The article brought to mind that thirty years ago here in my Berkeley, California house I had my kitchen “Italianized.” I had bought several crates of miss-matched Italian tiles to cover one wall… Due to my shooling in graphic arts I was making the tile placement a little too complicated in my search for their perfect placement next to each other, my trained eye was really making it complicated as to what to do. The solution was to hire a young Italian immigrant day worker and told him to place the tiles in a way he thought beautiful, ahhhh, Picasso would be envious, as was I, the kid came up with a walled masterpiece.
    Thank you for the great article Patricia.

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  5. ann bromberg

    Pat, what a delightful article. Didnot know where these italian tiles were made……….reminds me of teaching my students to fire their clay artwork in wood fired inside of metal garbage pails……..a very gratifying feeling……..keep up your splendid work xxxann

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