Glowing in Gubbio: Lusterware Ceramics

May 27, 2014 / Local Interest
Gubbio, Umbria
A work by Gubbio's Mastro Giorgio

Gubbio’s artistic ceramic production had its salad days in the 1500s under the direction of Mastro Giorgio Andreoli, who was born near Lake Maggiore but moved to Gubbio around 1490. As the director of the city’s most active majolica workshop, his development of the lusterware technique—which involves a third firing (most ceramics are fired twice) with a metallic glaze that renders the final colors iridescent because of the metal oxides in the final overglaze finish—made him one of the most sought-after ceramic artists in the Renaissance, both by noble clients and by other workshops, who often hired him to embellish their own wares (Which he would then sign himself. He was, apparently, the Oscar de la Renta of the 16th century.). The fame his trademark golden and ruby glaze brought him was such that the Duke of Urbino granted him citizenship and exempted him from paying taxes, an exemption then renewed by the Pope Leo X himself.

Smaller (and more easy to pack) samples of Gubbio's modern lusterware production.

Sadly, all good things must end and end they did when Mastro Giorgio died in 1555, taking with him to the grave the secret of his trademark lustro. That said, artists in the late 1800s were able to reconstruct–at least in part–the technique, and ceramic arteliers in the center of Gubbio still offer pieces decorated by this rich red and gold design. To see a few original works by Mastro Giorgio, you can stop by the Museo Civico in the Palazzo di Consoli, where a few works were acquired through funds donated by the town’s citizens over the past decades, or the small private museum in the Torre di Porta Romana, which also displays a small number of original pieces.

A modern example of Gubbio's lusterware.

Though the original recipe for lustro may have been lost, the oversized personalities behind Gubbio’s ceramic production continue, embodied in local ceramic artist and sculptor Leo Grilli. It’s hard to miss the name, as it adorns a number of ceramic shops and display windows along Gubbio’s main Corso. What caught my eye, however, was a series of stills from the now-defunct Italian variety show Scommettiamo Che…(“Let’s bet…”), in which apparently Leo bet that he could throw a pot on a vertical wheel attached to the hub of a moving Fiat 500 whilst strapped lying down just inches away from the asphalt to the side of the car. There’s a before and an after picture. Looks like Leo managed to win his bet. That’s my kind of guy.

Photo stills of Leo Grilli's bet on national television.

Though the maestro has now passed his workshop to his daughter, Claudia, he still holds court in his shop most days and is happy to hold forth on his glory years (he began producing in the 1950s and his fame reached its height in the 1980s), his workshops for aspiring ceramic artists held at the University of Pennsylvania, and pretty much anything you throw his way. His shop is crammed from ceiling to floor with decades of majolica in anything from the traditional lusterware to funky contemporary styles.

Leo Grilli's historic workshop in Gubbio.

Though I’m not much of a collector, if I could get my hands on the vase thrown by Leo Grilli on the wheel of a Cinquecento, I might just change my mind.

Rebecca Winke

by Rebecca Winke

Owner of Brigolante Apartments, a restored 16th century stone farmhouse / guesthouse in the heart of Umbria near Assisi, and blogger of life in Umbria. For tips and insider information about visiting Umbria, download her Umbria Slow App and see her writings on her personal website!

5 Responses to “Glowing in Gubbio: Lusterware Ceramics”

  1. Linda Boccia

    Throwing on the moving wheel of a Fiat is indeed a trick worth noting. As a former potter/ceramic sculptor for many years I know that you need to have the wheel moving a least 5- 10 miles an hour to hold the clay on the wheel and not have it collapse. Then when the car stopped you would need to cut it off immediately or it would fall from momentum. Quite the trick. Love to see innovative things. Grazie

  2. Connie Grigsby

    Love the combination of past and present! Especially with such a beautiful medium–still such an important part of Italian culture and art! I doubt there will be a lot of competitors with this uniquely creative throwing style!! thanx for sharing all!!


Leave a Reply