The new face of Casa Merlo …

24 November, 2010

Imagine that the face of someone close to you, someone you loved, had suddenly been radically altered – even taking on some of the characteristics of someone you didn’t like at all.  As I pondered this scenario in Paul Broks’ intriguing book Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology, my thoughts turned to the new face of Casa Merlo.  The proprietors are the same, so is the stock – and the manner in which it is displayed.  And yet my reaction to the shop in its new premises is markedly changed.  Before, the shop was interesting; now, it is irresistible.

In the five years since it opened, Casa Merlo has become one of Palermo’s most interesting speciality ceramics shops.  Its previous premises in one of the old city’s beautiful historic squares, Piazza S. Francesco d’Assissi, was simple and elegant, the ceramics clearly and intelligently displayed.  But, somehow, there I always felt I was being kept at a distance.  The new premises, with its fantasy of shapes and colours reflected in mirrored and dark wood antique shelving, fires my imagination and draws me in.  The richness of the Sicilian ceramics tradition is being displayed to perfection. 

Sicily’s ceramics tradition is long, and particularly rich, beginning, not unusually, with the manufacture of unglazed crockery for daily use, then, when glazed ceramics were introduced by the Arabs, moving on to richly decorated objects of all types.  In the 18th and 19th centuries the patterned majolica floor tiles that you see paving the floors of even the grandest of  palaces were manufactured in huge quantities.  Over the centuries, as various races and nations came and went – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish – Sicilian ceramics took inspiration from all these influences and developed its own rich, colourful, imaginative and distinctive style. 

Some of the main centres of production on the island were, and are, Caltagirone (inland in the south east), Sciacca and Burgio (on the south west coast) and S. Stefano di Camastra and Palermo (on the north coast).

The proprietors of Casa Merlo aim to showcase some of the best of Sicilian ceramics, searching out the ceramicists they consider best combine technical skill with artistic sensibility, whether making either purely traditional works or works that  imaginatively re-interpret tradition.  A separate space in the shop is allocated to each of the chosen ceramicists, enabling the visitor to obtain a clear picture of the variety and style of Sicilian ceramics, the variations that exist from one region to another and the individual style of each ceramicist. 

Two examples of the ceramicists they represent are Fratantoni and Val Demone, both from S.Stefano di Camastra on the north coast.   The Fratantoni workshop, founded in 1910 by Edoardo Fratantoni and now run by his daughter Annunziata, is one of the best known of the S.Stefano workshops.  For a long time Edoardo resisted the lure of commercial production, developing his own style and making objects evocative of times long gone, many of them fantasies in pure white. Val Demone, on the other hand, is a relatively young, but also highly regarded, workshop with a reputation for producing rich, creative and highly distinctive ceramics, taking inspiration from a variety of sources including the sculptural and architectural models of Baroque Sicily.  Its animal range is particularly distinctive – the colourful horses among my favourites.  

Seeing the new face of Casa Merlo I was inspired to go in and talk to the proprietors, Vincenzo and Adele Merlo – tell them how splendid I thought their new premises.  They are obviously happy there and seem proud of their new home.  They told me it had previously been the premises of a famous 19th century Palermo jewellery shop, Mercurio & C , that is referred to in one of Pirandello’s plays.  They pointed out the original lettering on the outside of the shop that had been retained, and the original internal fittings.  As they showed me the huge safe that stands behind the desk, I imagined an immaculately dressed male attendant, probably of late middle age, turning to remove an exquisite piece of jewellery from the safe and place it with the greatest care on the velvet display cloth for his discerning customer to admire.  And maybe the customer would have been one of Vincenzo’s ancestors. Casa Merlo takes its name from his family, one of Sicily’s old aristocratic families.  The crest that decorates the outside of the shop is the Merlo family crest.    

Vincenzo says they like to think of themselves as somewhat unusual shopkeepers because they are motivated, above all, by the pleasure they derive from sharing their passion for Sicilian ceramics and helping, even in a small way, to keep the tradition alive.   I think they are somewhat unusual shopkeepers, but they do it well and I wish them well.  Their shop is definitely worth a visit – Corso Vittorio Emanuele 231, on the corner of Piazzetta Marchese Arezzo.  .

8 Responses to “The new face of Casa Merlo …”

  1. jan Says:

    you never cease to amaze me with you vivid descriptions of such a variety of topics. you are able to transport me right there with you

  2. Cate Says:

    Your enthusiasm for Casa Merlo is infectious and makes me want to visit it immediately! I particularly enjoyed this post as I have become enamoured with Sicilian ceramics over the course of my visits to Sicily. I also like the look of the colourful horses – the blue one especially!

  3. kateludlow Says:

    The blue horse is one of my favourites too! You’ll obviously have to come and explore Casa Merlo further. Thank you for the comment.

  4. Sally F Says:

    Me, me, me … I am just off to my pottery class – love the horses too and must get back to Palermo!

  5. Louise F Says:

    Loved the horses. Temptation must be hard to resist! Keep writing

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