Musings on porcelain: a visit to Ginori’s manufacturing facility, exploring the creation of an artisanal product between poetry and powder, and insects over errors
The archival designs of plates from Manifattura Ginori feature plenty of adorned patterns: they come in gold and cobalt-blue; roses and crest-inspired design; medieval or Ottoman-inspired friezes. Amid their virtuoso-like flourishes, we occasionally see black, life-like insects crawl. They’re mainly beetles, dragonflies, flies, and bees. Just enough to startle a fellow diner, enlivening the atmosphere of a formal meal. Back in the day, inserting small insects in the intricate patterns of the finest china was meant to cover up the mistakes of craftsmen — a drop of ink, a crease, or an irregularity in texture. Rather than concealing the imperfection, a dainty insect would highlight the error by covering it up — like a mask turning heads in the ballroom. To have an insect on the platter was a matter of pride, as it underscored how unique the artifact actually was.
Alessandro Michele, who worked for Ginori before taking the helm at Gucci, knows this all too well. Stumbling upon the insect motif while browsing the archives, he decided to recreate these alleged “fixer” insects in hamster size. Those tiny drawings became refined monsters, growing in size to fit in the palm of our hands — knick knacks to be scattered around the house. But the practice of glorifying and sublimating mistakes in production has vanished, pushed out in an attempt to avoid recalls and complaints in the import-export industry. What we lose is the no-nonsense practical value of an object, something that the mid-century bourgeoisie widely accepted. They were, after all, the main customers purchasing porcelain wares — an indicator of elegance no longer associated with aristocracy.
Powders arrive at the factory. “Ceramic” is used as a generic term for porcelain, stoneware, majolica, terracotta and so forth, whose main differences lie in blends and temperatures. The three main ingredients include kaolin, feldspar and quartz. Rough proportions call for 2:1:1 but the nuts and bolts remain a secret defined by school, district, and tradition — much like grandma’s apple pie, which follows just one recipe, and yet everyone seems to have their own take. The resulting material would be dough-like in consistency, worked under pressure in order to make a series of plates, while porcelain, by default, came in liquid form, allowing for artistic elaborations. It was destined to reach each table through a system of pumps and syphons, like the watering-system of a garden, or the work of a local plumber — every work station with its own faucet and a gun-shaped extension to fill in the molds.
Near the duomo of Florence, the factory’s cast department keeps molds and reliefs neatly aligned along the shelves. It’s here that our visit to Manifattura Ginori begins, where they invent the models and shapes to be recreated in porcelain. The environment seems straight out of a Luis Bunuel film: light pours in from the loft-like windows on the first floor, while those working with molds carry on in silence. Dust is felt on the fingers, but not seen — clay has to be worked when moist. There are two ways to mold it, just as we anticipated: the first, and more advanced, is industrial, and meant for everyday dishes, which we use as a reference for our porcelain work. It’s a pressure mechanism for curved and round shapes, on a horizontal plane. The second is classic molding, the way Canova used plaster, or, more boldly, the way Michelangelo used stone, sculpting by hand. Our tale, however, is one that looks to recount the fascinating nature of this type of manufacturing without delving into an exhaustive methodology — allow me, then, to proceed with the latter: artistic production by hand. From the plaster department comes the model through which a simple negative obtains the mold: a cube containing the impression of the artifact.
The hollow shape arrives at the artisan’s workstation to be filled with liquid matter through hydraulic pumps and the aforementioned spray guns. Once filled, we wait for the liquid porcelain to adhere to the inner cavity made of plaster, which absorbs water, allowing the material to adhere to the most minute details of the mold. The variables for the thickness of an artifact are both the amount of liquid material poured, and the wait time before drainage. Opening the mold reveals what we call crudo — still soft, each mold can be used up to 35 times, after which, the plaster can no longer absorb water. The crudo has to be stored in a cool environment, covered in damp rags and nylon. It has “memory” and can be molded. It will be joined to other components, both structural and decorative, through precise micro-sculptural finishes: flowers and petals showcase the craftsmanship of the artisans who have been passing down their secrets from generation to generation, learning new ones in the process. They work with borbottina, the most liquid form of porcelain used by artisans as glue. At each workstation, masters of the craft bring ideas from the style department to life, which are developed through books, aesthetic research, and trial and error. But it’s the artisan that has the ultimate say in a project with logistical problems, adjusting as they go. What artisans know, they learned from those before them, and each idea is the result of manual testing and new manual abilities. Alessandro Badii, who oversees the style department at Richard Ginori, is the first to recognize the value of knowledge shared among artisans.
The crudo enters its first oven, which extends nearly 80 meters long, and where temperatures reach up to 1000 degrees. Inserted by morning and extracted by night, the crudo becomes what is known as biscotto (bisque): a solid but porous material. The biscotto is then dunked in a mixture called vetrina (glaze) that will give it its translucent finish, and is prepared for the second oven, which burns at 1400 degrees. After this second process, the artifact is known as bianco, or cotto forte: the porcelain is shiny and translucent, and reflects our final product before any coloration (experts can recognize the quality and the provenance of a piece based on the shade of white and its brightness). Passing from crudo to biscotto, the product loses about 30% humidity, and by the time it reaches the bianco stage, the piece will have shrunk by 16%, forcing the artisan to make recalculations and readjustments, which can be better managed through experience. At each phase, every broken and defective component is retrieved, from crudo to biscotto, and even cotto forte, because everything comes from the same three elements: kaolin, feldspar, and quartz. It can be re-pulverized and re-amalgamated for further use, but must remain pure, or without color.
At this point, the artifacts are colored, and head back into the oven. Cooking for color, temperatures are kept below the 1400 degrees of the bianco cotto finito, leaving its physics stable and the object solid: every time an object is cooked in the oven, it’s subject to stress, and hardened, making it more fragile.
The brightest colors are those that cook at 800 degrees: they’re called “third-fire” colors, and they stay on top of the enamel. They’re strong and bright. Golden hues, for example, have to be deposited on top of the enamel, otherwise they lose their sheen. Colors that cook between 1200 and 1400 degrees are those typical of porcelain: the enamel softens again at these temperatures, and pigments slide underneath, entering the substrate of the material and of the glass patina. Colors will resist wear, losing their brightness, but they’ll be more intense and somber, in line with this art form. After all, sparkling finishes are more of a mass-market aesthetic anyway. Hues here range from cobalt blue to burgundy, green, and black — jewel tones, that refer to lapis lazuli, a pigment originating from a blue gemstone. The blue of Ginori’s “Babele” collection, meanwhile, is a shade that cooks at 1400 degrees