Having lived in Tuscany for about 15 years I have a well seasoned idea as to what most visitors do enjoy, and apart from the mouth watering cuisine and wonderful wines, shopping is high on the list of ‘must do’s’ for the majority.
One of the most requested italian treasures is in fact the handmade tuscan ceramics or ‘majolica’. To be sure that what you buy is a genuine product of the region the best way is to visit some of the artisans in their workshops and you also have a very high possibility of a better price than in the touristy shops of Florence and San Gimignano. A visit to the workshops directly isn’t the easiest thing to do unless you are with someone in the know, but it isn’t impossible and can also be turned into a lovely day trip.
A little bit of history
The town called ‘Montelupo Fiorentino’, about 25 kms from Florence, is one of the most historic and also most well known for it’s production of ceramics. Sitting close to both the Arno river which connect Florence to Pisa and then to the sea, the village was in a strategic position to allow for merchants to transport the product very easily to be traded with the trading ships coming through the Mediteranean. It had been one of the most important pottery centres in Europe between the 15th and the 17th century and pieces were made not only for the Florentine nobility including the infamous ‘Medici Family’ but also for the local monasteries, hospitals and pharmacies.
There was a recession in production for about three hundred years and it was only at the end of the 19th century that the sleepy village of Montelupo experienced a great resurgence and is now one of the most important production centres in the entire country.
How is it made?
The area has an excellent quality of clay and the factories buy this is large blocks which is then cut and fed into a machine that squeezes out the air bubbles and softens it a little forming a workable ‘lump’ for the potter to start with. They then use the potting wheel and a whole lot of muscle to form the shape necessary, making sure that the finished product is uniform with the help of a metal ‘guide’. The pieces are left to dry, then the person responsible for the ‘accessories’, the handles, moulds and any decoration does his part. Then the firing, then a glaze and then the fun part… the painting. The painters are all professional trained and extremely skilled and hand drawn the designs first before painting, using a wheel to turn the piece ensuring that any lines are evenly drawn. Another final firing and the piece is complete.
How do I get there?
Montelupo is about a 35 min drive from Florence, you can get the train to the little village itself but the ceramic workshops are a little further out so I would definitely suggest having a driver for the day ( or half day) if you dont have your own car. From Florence take the superstrada towards Pisa and exit at Lastra A Signa and follow this road towards Empoli for about 20 mins. On the right you will see ‘IMA Ceramics’ .
You can also exit at Montelupo Fiorentino ( which is the stop after Lastra A Signa) and visit the Ceramic museum first in the village and then head back out to IMA.
They are a wholesale only workshop so it is best to not just show up but to have someone like myself or a driver call beforehand to make sure you can visit. The artists start early in the morning and finish early afternoon so get an early start as half the fun is to see the pieces being created and painted. You can purchase from the factory shop and order from what you see in the workshop. These pieces are normally already on order as they export all over the world but once finished they can ship to you.
What else can I see?
Town of Montelupo Fiorentino – it is an attraction in itself, with plenty to see from fortifications to Roman excavations.
The Ceramic Museum – Piazza Vittorio Veneto 10 – 11 – 50056 MONTELUPO FIORENTINO (FI)
tel. +39 0571 51352 – 51087 http://www.museomontelupo.it
Scuola di Ceramica Montelupo Fiorentino – this is one of the most important Ceramics school of Italy and they do offer short courses of one day.
‘International Festival of Ceramics’ – June 18-21st. Well worth a visit if visiting in June, this is a 4 day festival which for 20 years has been hosted by the town. You can see craftsmen at work ( in this town there are roughly 50 workshops dedicated to ceramics) there are live bands and other market stalls and it is a celebration of this magnificent art. You have the chance to find some real bargains as the younger artists also display their works. There are children’s workshops and also a treasure hunt in the ceramics museum. The most amazing thing in my opinion is on one evening, in the dark, they open up one of the clay ovens built into the ground and bring out the flaming red pottery pieces that light up the night sky. It is quite spectacular!
There are numerous vineyards in the area worth visiting if you have the time and in a full day excursion this can easily be arranged.
In terms of restaurants there are some fabulous places in the area like ‘Edy Piu’ ph 0558724562 & ‘Da Delfina’ ph 055 8718074. Read my blog post about the hamlet of Artimino and this restaurant!
If you are interested in the Etruscan civilisation then the Etruscan tombs in Comeana are incredible. You will need an interpreter here, also very interesting for children.
For customised excursions please don’t hesitate to contact me at email@example.com
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