Born in 1959 in Macerata, in the Marche region, Maurizio Tittarelli Rubboli was already active in the family pottery as a mere boy. Since 1873, when his great-grandfather Paolo established the Rubboli atelier, it has been passed down from father to son. With its founding in the town of Gualdo Tadino in Umbria, this ceramics factory reintroduced an ancient type of lustreware that had been popular here during the Renaissance. Maurizio Tittarelli Rubboli still uses the pottery's 19th-century muffle furnaces for this decorative type of third firing, using wood and dry branches of broom (Cytisus scoparius) in accordance with the technique described by Cipriano Piccolpasso in his treatise Li tre libri dell'arte del vasaio ("The three books of the potter's art") written in 1558.
Tell us more about yourself. When did you start learning this craft?That answer would need pages and pages! In my family, the ceramics tradition has always been alive and present. Everything having to do with our pottery was considered secret, which in my mind, as a child, unleashed quite some dreams, fantasies and even fears. These mysteries were the knowledge of my mother, a woman of character who said she would teach me everything if I promised her that I'd graduate like my father did. Mamma had experienced hard times first-hand, including the Great Depression in 1929, which had forced her family to sell the big house and drastically cut back the number of workers employed in the factory. We might say I started learning the craft when I was born, but my work as a ceramicist began in 1985, the year I made my first object. I was 26. After that I experimented with techniques, conducted studies and made innovations with regard to the family tradition, and now I am the last link of a chain that has been producing majolica lustreware in the tradition of Giorgio Andreoli since 1873.
We might say I started learning the craft when I was born, but my work as a ceramicist began in 1985, the year I made my first object.
I have always been convinced that no tradition withstands the shock of change. There is no escape from change, so innovation came to me spontaneously.
What is the technique of lustro?
Lustre means the application of gold and ruby-coloured iridescence as a final decorative finish to pottery. It is a third firing of ceramics in the kiln, with the smoke of broom branches. Lustre is one of the most fascinating and mysterious chapters in the entire history of ceramics. It is said that the technique originated simultaneously in Persia and Mesopotamia, in the cities of Kashan and Baghdad in the 9th century. After the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, lustreware was diffused in all Northern Africa and Spain, after which it arrived in Italy. In 1500, as the Renaissance was becoming a great stimulus to all the arts, the technique reached several Italian ceramicists including Mastro Giorgio from Gubbio in Umbria, who created absolute masterpieces of lustreware. After the last splendours of the 17th century, the technique disappeared, not to return until the late 19th century, when it was rediscovered and taken up by a number of ceramicists, mostly in Central Italy. The pioneers who created this revival were Luigi Carocci with the Ginori ceramics factory in the Florence area in 1856. Paolo Rubboli, my great-grandfather who was from Pesaro, resuscitated the technique in Umbria in 1873, commencing our family tradition.
The technique of lustre is inherited. Do you think this tradition influenced your decision to become a master artisan?
To my family and I, the technique was a pleasant obsession. I fell asleep and woke up every day with the vision of the Rubboli pottery on my mind, with the privilege and duty to continue an ancient tradition. To repeat the same moves my forefathers had executed thousands of times was not only life experience, but almost therapeutic. Working the way they used to do makes me feel good. It gives me a sense of belonging and purpose, fulfilment.
To obtain the shiny iridescent colour effect, special muffle furnaces are used. Now they are protected by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage for being of great historical and cultural value. How do they work?
The technique of lustreware was rediscovered in the 19th century thanks to the treatise by Cipriano Piccolpasso with the title Li tre libri dell'arte del vasaio ("The three books of the potter's art") written in 1558. Luckily, the author had drawn the kilns used to obtain the particular iridescence, because he had visited the pottery of the son of the great master of lustre, Mastro Giorgio in Gubbio. Our furnaces were built by Paolo Rubboli around the year 1884, and are a modified version of the ones described by Piccolpasso in minute detail.
Their functioning is linked to secrets of the trade handed down from father to son, but their particularity is essentially given by a large "basket" made of fireclay, in which the objects are protected from direct flames. There, they undergo drastic oxidation-reduction provoked by the smoke of the broom. In Spain, they used to use rosemary for the same purpose.
How important to your work are tradition and your attachment to the area where you grew up?
Of course my surroundings and its traditions are always present when I work, but I take into consideration a much larger area than my homeland of Umbria. When I work, my reference point is whatever gives emotions. To speak with Socrates, "I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world." I combine great admiration for the British Arts and Crafts with my Mediterranean roots, which are always present. I never forget Sappho's golden chickpeas or Dante's sweet colour of the Oriental sapphire.
The technique of lustre is very old. How do you succeed in connecting the past with the requirements of the present?
I have always been convinced that no tradition withstands the shock of change. There is no escape from change, so innovation came to me spontaneously. Adapting such an old technique to contemporary tastes was almost a consequence of daily life. Although I love the historicism that made my family's tradition great, a new style linked to contemporary times has always been my propensity, since the beginning.
You have dedicated your life to ceramics, and have even opened a museum entirely dedicated to ceramics and lustreware. What did this big step mean to you?
After the 1997 earthquake, there was a tough choice to make: either sell everything or start over again from the rubble. I decided to acquire whatever I could from my relatives. Thanks to the Municipality of Gualdo Tadino and the Region of Umbria, I succeeded in inserting the museum into the projects financed by the European Union, and so the Museo Opificio Rubboli was born, owned by the Municipality. This step was important from an emotional point of view, because it gave me the peace of mind that my family's work will not be lost. It will always be part of the heritage of Gualdo Tadino and beyond.
Is there an object you are particularly attached to? Why?
Perhaps there is more than one. In the things I make, I often reference artists who came before me and had brilliant ideas that leave an indelible mark, for instance William Morris, William de Morgan and Sutton Taylor. Creating pieces inspired by their work makes me feel close to them, almost related. As for objects that come from my original idea, I think that L’Amore è un Cubo is a very successful creation, where the title and the object meld harmoniously, just as I wanted them to.
Do you have advice for young people interested in becoming artisans, particularly ceramicists?
Learn the technique and the rules like the best professional. Then break them like an artist. But don't forget that you essentially become an artist by being cultured and learned. Culture makes you travel and therefore able to create.