I perfectly remember my first visit to the ceramic district of Grottaglie, in June 2017 – I had just arrived in Puglia, for what was supposed to be a two-month short residency.
It was a hot early summer afternoon.
I joined a tour of all the shops, led by Carlo, my dear friend who, after living in Puglia for a few years, knew all the artisans very well.
It was a real coup de foudre: extreme craftsmanship, piles of ceramics stacked everywhere, colors blending feelings, the smell of fresh clay and a real, sincere and affable humanity.
Ancient traditions and know-how of generations meet harmoniously with smiling faces, bright colors, ancestral forms and cordiality.
I was a foreigner (and still am, although 4 years have passed since my move). I camouflaged myself in the great coming and going of tourists who crowded the streets around the shops throughout the summer season. Despite my marked Milanese accent and very little skills in the field, I immediately found a clear and preferential channel of communication: an enormous willingness to explain everything to me, to tell stories, to participate in the workshop rites that every day mark the routine of a craftsman.
The very first love was with Antonio Fasano.
His is a small shop in the beating heart of the neighborhood, with tuff walls, very simple shelves in rough wood and a small workshop overlooking the street.
Antonio is known for his proverbial sympathy, the facial features of a neorealist film actor, the winking jokes and blaring classical music.
Antonio works with his brother Ciro. Ciro suffers from intellectual disabilities from birth so Antonio, took him to the shop and gave him purpose: playing with clay and colors. Little did he know Ciro would soon prove that deserves that place among the artisans. His iconic plates and vases are decorated with abstract faces, painted with thick brushstrokes of primary colors, united by enigmatic expressions, pasty volume and extreme recognizability.
Ciro’s artistic flair is accompanied by great classics of the local ceramic tradition that Antonio produces with dedication, sometimes allowing himself gentle variations on the theme.
Another essential stop is Franco Fasano, a true star of the Grottagliese context.
His shop is large and well organized, with a careful display of the many collections in production – but the real pearl is the large workshop a few meters away that Franco is always happy to show. A large industrial-style shed with huge skylights that mark the spaces with beams of warm light, giving a theatrical and suspended atmosphere.
Here, workers who deal with all the production phases of ceramics, modeling, decoration, firing and glazing coexist. There are artisans who have been part of the “Nicola Fasano” team for more than 30 years. It is a spectacle of rare beauty to observe them on the wheel: large blocks of clay are caressed with skilful and confident gestures and in a few minutes soft and balanced shapes are born. Although Franco has almost 50 years of activity behind him and manages a team of 30 people, he cannot leave the life of the shop. Every day you can find him with his white apron on – between one call and another, he paints, he decorates, he draws what he defines as “contemporary faces”, with a sure and mellow stroke.
Mr. Franco also succeeded in the arduous task of combining all the tradition and craftsmanship of his family with undeniable entrepreneurial skills. He has important collaborations with internationally renowned designers, his ceramics are shipped all over the world destined for the coolest concept stores of the moment and he is always open to new challenges.
Giorgio di Palma
The name heard out of the voice of the chorus is that of Giorgio di Palma. Designer, ceramist and artist, born in ‘81.
After years of practicing archeology and computer science abroad, Giorgio decided to return to Grottaglie, his hometown, and continue the family tradition. Giorgio’s father is a ceramist and professor of art.
His creative research was born precisely from this unconventional training.
His space, where he welcomes customers into his world in the company of his faithful dog Noia, is on the first floor of a small white building, accessed by a steep staircase, finding himself in a spot animated by what he defines as “ceramics that were not needed”. Full-size reproductions of common objects which we all know and are part of our collective everyday memory.
Wrenches, packets of chewing gum, highlighters, brushes – all made entirely of ceramic, with an obsessive attention to the faithful reproduction of details.
Totally devoid of functionality, but with a clear aesthetic, expressive and anthropological meaning. His is a clear stance against the culture of consumption, taking the disposable object and transforming it into the eternal.
Giorgio has received awards and mentions, his ceramics have been exhibited in contemporary art museums in Europe, Asia and America.
Giorgio combines extreme naturalness and simplicity. His expressive urgency and artistic vision show through the combination of the Grottagliese microcosm and his own habits.
La Bottega Vestita
Cosimo, founder and owner, defines it as a church, where ceramics are an expression of lay prayer, work and invention.
Cosimo, like most of the local potters, is a son of art. He attended his father’s workshop since he was five, and has vivid memories of those times, of the ancestral tradition of clay excavated in local quarries and kneaded by hand.
The rooms of his laboratory are loaded with ceramics and design sketches that testify the path taken since opening in the 70’s, from popular objects, to the Hellenic tradition, to design collaborations.
The friendliness and love for the story are distinctive features of how he welcomes you into the shop. There is also a splendid terrace that dominates the entire landscape, where Cosimo delights in poetic tales of the pagan and auspicious rites.
The ceramics district has become for me, as for many, a real place in the heart. Where to go back, get lost, take the necessary time, get in touch with people, sit on the terraces and listen to their stories.
It is a unique place that in itself has all the simplicity and magic of real, authentic things, made of hard work, dedication, research and a conspicuous, enviable dose of love.