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Saturday , December 12 , 2009
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An Italian experience
A glimpse of the main town square in Faenza

It was the butterflies that attracted me — tiny, exquisite looking creatures, with colourful wings outspread. As I pressed my nose into the window to inspect these ceramic beauties better, Antonio Liverani, artist and the store owner appeared at the door and invited me in. I went in nervously, worried that I might be a bull in a China shop. All around in a riot of bright colours were delicate ceramic pieces — plates, tea sets, ashtrays, vases, figurines of animals and picture frames.

I was in Faenza, known to the cognoscenti as the ceramic capital of the world. This tiny northern Italian medieval town in the Emilio Romagna region boasts of at least 60 ceramic studios, where artists mould, paint and sell their creations. You could call it the traditional occupation of the town folk, since Faenza’s ceramic heritage dates back to the 14th century.

However, Antonio was not from a traditional ceramic family — he’s a first generation artist. He invited me into his studio to see how the motifs were painted on to the pottery. Faenza has fiercely clung to its manual traditions — all ceramic pieces here are handcrafted by the artisans.

Before arriving in Faenza, I had read up about its International Museum of Ceramics, which draws art buffs from all over the world. Housing pottery from ancient Oriental civilisations to medieval works, Renaissance art to contemporary modern representations, it also has a gallery devoted to Picasso and Chagall.

Not surprisingly, Faenza’s ceramic studios don’t sell their work cheap — the butterflies looked unaffordable, so I settled for a tiny ashtray with the trademark carnation motifs, which, with a bit of bargaining and playing the India card (talking about our blue pottery and Harappan history), I fitted into my budget. The carnation is the representative motif for pieces from Faenza, though it was probably inspired by the Imari porcelain of Japan.

It was now getting dark and the stores were shutting down. We’d arrived in Faenza well past dusk, tired and cold. November is not a good time to be in north Italy. Landing in Vienna, we had had the misfortune to find the city flooded. Through Mantova, a scenic town around a large lake, on to Bologna, rain played spoilsport.

But, at Faenza, our spirits revived. It was partly the improved weather and mostly the sight of the Hotel Vittoria, a heritage hotel where we would be staying. With ancient arches, and frescoed ceilings, this erstwhile nobleman’s 14th-century palace was charming. It boasted its own ancient ceramic collections displayed proudly in the reception area. The hotel was also perfectly located, with the main square, Piazza della Libertà just a minute away and the International Ceramic Museum about five minutes off. There were several ceramic studios next to the hotel.

Our dinner was booked at the Osteria del Mercato, a quaint little restaurant just behind Piazza della Libertà. Although barely a two-minute walk from our hotel, we took our time getting through the city centre. The hub of Faenza is not one main square but two contiguous squares — the Piazza del Popolo and Piazza della Libertà.

On the first square is located the medieval cathedral, and a fountain. A curiosity here is that the Clock Tower and the Cathedral are not adjoining — some residences sprang up in between, before it occurred to anyone to put up a tower. Here was also the Goldsmith’s Portico, open galleries built in the 17th century.

Dinner was sumptuous — pizzas were but starters to a long drawn out meal accompanied by heady local wine produced in the neighbouring hills. And I have to testify that the Italians know how to turn aubergines and spinach, two hated vegetables, into delicious dishes.

Thursday was open market day at Faenza. A colourful market is set up in the main square and it opens by 7am — news that pleased us since next morning we were scheduled to leave at 9am to see the fruit sorting factories in the district. Faenza is becoming equally famous as a fruit production and liqueur making centre as it is a pottery hub.

For sightseeing, Faenza is a very tiny town that can be covered in a day. But this birthplace of Torricelli, the inventor of the barometer, is often used as a base to explore nearby medieval towns — Ravenna (famous for its mosaic works and Dante’s tomb) and Modena (the birthplace of Ferrari and a major sports car hub today). With the Adriatic Sea just 25km away, the Sub Apennine hills all around and scenic olive groves, vineyards and fruit orchards, there’s plenty to see.

Next morning, the open market provided us with some unexpectedly good bargains in terms of clothes, shoes and knick-knacks. We wound up our fruit processing centre visit quickly, eager to visit the ceramic museum, only to be severely disappointed. On Thursdays, the museum shuts at 1.00pm. Looking at the vine-covered high walls of the museum, and observing a pub tantalisingly named “Clandestino” — Live and Love Wine Bar next to it, we decided to return at night. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking across town and visiting ceramic studios.

At night, the museum looked lovely, the sculptures lit up beautifully. A gig was on with a travelling American singer strumming the guitar. Faenza’s nightlife was certainly alive as the two-storeyed bar was packed with youngsters. A quaint tradition at the bar was that when you bought a drink, you got a coin. When leaving, you exchanged the coin for a gift. For most of us, the exchange only fetched us small change, but Karen was more fortunate — in return for the grappa brandy she had ordered, she got an entire miniature tea set!

Ready reckoner

Getting there: Bologna is the nearest international airport, 50km away. It’s also easily accessible from Milan and Vienna by train.

Local attractions: Visit the International Ceramic Museum. Make sure you check the timings.

Wine and Dine: Enjoy peaches, nectarines, kiwis, apricots, volpina pears,chestnuts and cherries. The extra-virgin olive oil of Brisighella is famous as are the red and white wines of the Colli di Faenza.

Photographs by author

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