This is a space-time tour which will give you the possibility to discover what is considered to be poor material: the Impruneta terracotta. However, from sculptures to architecture, the terracotta from Impruneta has been used by many great artists of the Renaissance and it was also known in ancient times and was widely used among Etruscans and Romans. The tradition of terracotta is so ancient and deeply rooted in the Impruneta community that it is identified as the primary element of its cultural identity since the Renaissance.
The dome structure of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, perhaps the most admired of the Florentine Renaissance, as well as being the largest in the world, was built by Brunelleschi using bricks and material from the Impruneta kilns. The extraordinary impact of this engineering masterpiece is also due to the red color of its exterior, which makes it the dominant feature in the landscape. The success of the production of these kilns was based on several factors: the presence of marl in the area with minerals that make it particularly resistant to frost, the abundance of wood for the ovens, the important roadway in which it is located and the proximity to Florence. Brunelleschi personally followed each step of the making of the bricks in the kilns and expected that they be well shaped and well fired. During the difficult work he had a mess hall and a bathroom built on the dome for workers who were exposed to the severe weather. Thus the Impruneta Peposo dish was created in the kilns, accompanied by red wine which was watered down by Brunelleschi so that no one would get drunk!
The brick building system for a part of the caps, was made by customized hand-made bricks, assembled together in a “fishbone” manner thus making each piece unique. The tiles were nailed to the outer cover to prevent slipping due to the strong inclination. Even today the Fornace Mariani kiln supplies the tiles for the dome which are laid out in the sun to be aged before they are used to replace the old ones!
The following century Michelangelo designed the elaborate decoration on the Laurenziana Library floor built in terracotta bricks by Santi Buglioni and soon after Bartolomeo Ammannati built the facade of the Palazzo Grifoni in the Piazza Annunziata by coating it with thin red bricks. The facades were designed to evoke the ancient Roman architecture, according to the fashion of the time. In 1500 and 1600 many domes were made in this fashion such as the Cappelle Medicee in San Lorenzo, the Cappella dei Pazzi and Santo Spirito. Gardens too were enriched by these bricks creating bizarre, grotesque and theatrical effects as can be seen in the gardens of the Ville Medicee from Boboli and other gardens located outside the city. The terracotta is used for covering prestigious floors in many major monuments and museums such as the Palazzo Vecchio; it would be impossible to name them all. Externally the only significant example is the ancient pavement of Piazza della Signoria which, before being rebuilt with stone slabs during the Lorenese period, was entirely made of terracotta tiles separated by strips of white marble.
During the Lorena Grand Duchy arts and crafts in general had a great period of development; Pietro Leopoldo abolished the terracotta commerce fee thus giving impetus to a large increase to the production of terracotta. An example of this is the beautiful facade of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence, where clay pots are interspersed with stone statues creating extremely suggestive color effects.
During the period when Florence was the capital, there was a widespread use of terracotta to adorn buildings with a tendency to go back to the medieval fashion which at the time was adopted internationally, according to the romantic spirit. At the beginning of the 20th century this material was no longer used for static and structural requirements but only for decorative purposes, however its connotations were still linked to the fourteenth-century tradition. An example of its high artistic level is the Art Nouveau decoration with red brick vestments on the facades of villas such as the architect Michelazzi’s façade in Via Scipione Ammirato. Over the years, after the first world war, artists began looking closely at archaic art models; there was a return to Etruscan forms by sculptors such as Marino Marini and Romano Romanelli. The Pomone, the Dancers and the portraits exhibited at the Museo Marini are among the most representative works. The Florentine architect Michelucci interpreted the modern spirit by experimenting with various material; some of his architectural creations are made of brick, such as the multi-family house in the hills of Pescia.
Nowadays, many internationally renowned artists have used the Impruneta terracotta to express themselves in either a traditional or innovative way. In architecture, the famous architect Renzo Piano, who prefers experimenting and uses the ‘dry’ assembly methods, has used the bricks produced by the Fornace del Palagio kilns to create “ventilated walls”, which had already been used in traditional architecture, to thermally insulate the Banca Popolare di Lodi and other buildings he has created. In this example, Piano covered the building like a second skin. The color of the terracotta makes the building’s exterior look more familiar; the bricks age gracefully and over time they become softer with a slight glaze. Piano, like other architects such as Gae Aulenti (the Florence Station), Portoghesi (Rimini residential center), Zambelli (Versilia Hospital), Gregotti (Residential Centre Bicocca) and Natalini (Gorle sports center) launched both an innovative system and a system that respects building traditions.
In contemporary sculpture Anne and Patrick Poirer are distinguished for the creation of the Giardini del Profumo (Garden of Perfumes): a work of art work never before created and the credit goes to the Fornace Emmegi kiln. The Iranian sculptor Igor Mitoraj has created several of his sculptures and terracotta busts in the Fornaci di Chiti Terracotta del Chianti kilns. The British sculptor Matthew Spender has specialized in figurative works of terracotta and Betty Woodman has created dozens of vases and ceramics at the Fornaci Masini and Orlandi kilns. In recent years two notable permanent exhibitions by Staccioli and Alan Sonfist were added to the beautiful olive grove in front of the Fornace Poggi Ugo kiln. They are respectively, the Terracotta 2009 which was created for the 90th anniversary of the Fornace Poggi Ugo kiln and ‘Birth of Spear’ for the 2010 edition of Tuscia electa.
Useful links: www.tusciaelecta.com
The use of Impruneta terracotta continues to combine different qualities which can be seen in the works of art by international artists and architects whose results are often excellent, to say the least.
(Research done by Antonella Massa for the 2001 edition of Tuscia Electa updated as at today. In the photos: Isometric view of Brunelleschi’s dome; Terracotta 2009 by Mauro Staccioli; Birth of Spear, 2010 by Alan Sonfist, made in the Poggi Ugo Impruneta kiln