Le Stanze al Genio – an inspiring collection of majolica tiles

14 March, 2013

IMG_2170Le Stanze al Genio is a beautifully displayed collection of Sicilian and Neapolitan majolica floor tiles, mostly 18th and 19th century, some earlier.   The tiles, all hand painted, are attractive and interesting in their own right, and an essential part of the decorative tradition of Southern Italy:   you see tiles of this sort  – in an endless range of designs, from floral to geometric, mythical figures to rural scenes and coats of arms – on the floors of the grandest palaces and the smallest country churches throughout Sicily.  That would be enough to make this museum a place of interest.  What makes it so inspiring is the passion, dedication and skill of its creator – evident in every detail.

As Pio Mellina talks about his lifelong passion for these tiles, and his commitment and dedication to the collection, I am reminded of Gavin Maxwell’s wonderful description of a gamekeeper he followed round as a child on the heather and bracken covered hillsides of his family’s property at Elrig in the lowlands of Scotland, a man who “with the wisdom of a lifetime … outwitted birds and beasts ….”  At the end of a long reminiscence, this gamekeeper would conclude “Ay, you come to know, through time …”   That is the sort of knowledge one feels that Pio has – and that has enabled him to create this jewel of a museum.

IMG_2174The museum currently contains approximately 2,300 tiles, most of which have been carefully catalogued, and is housed in Pio’s apartment on the piano nobile, the high-ceilinged first floor, of an ancient palace, Palazzo Torre Piraino, in the city’s Kalsa district.  It is a perfect venue; Pio acquired it knowing it would be.   Like many palaces in the old city, this one has been sadly neglected, but the apartment itself has been carefully and beautifully restored, from the ceiling frescoes to the high, panelled internal doors that have been re-painted in the traditional light green with gold-leaf trim.   The museum is a labour of love, entirely self-funded. Pio has never received any contribution from the State.

During the late 17th century, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the main centres for the manufacture of these majolica tiles were Naples and Palermo.  What is known as a ‘third fire’ technique was used in their production:  first, the shaped clay was fired, then it was  glazed with a clear glaze and fired again;  and finally it was hand painted – often using a stencil for geometric designs – and fired a third time, this last firing being the most delicate and complicated part of the process.

IMG_2181Because the tiles vary in size, depending largely on region and era, Pio decided that in order to be displayed effectively, they should be mounted on uniformly sized squares of wood.  The dark wooden mounts are made by a carpenter, then Pio secures the tile to the mount, using four clips, rather like bent nails, to hold it in place.  This has to be done very carefully to avoid damaging the tile.  Entire walls are covered with tiles mounted in this way, from floor to ceiling.  They are strikingly attractive.  The whole museum, in fact, with its tile covered walls, elegant doors and tiled floors, complemented by bookshelves and modern furniture, is elegant, tasteful and colourful.

IMG_2175The tiles have been collected over more than 30 years from every conceivable source: from rubbish tips to street markets and, in recent times, auction houses.  Pio started collecting when he was a boy, no more than 11 or 12 years old, wandering the little street markets that then operated throughout the old town.  At that time the tiles were being taken out of house and palaces that were being either pulled down or renovated.   They were not considered to be of any particular value – except to this little boy who had fallen in love with them – their colours and their patterns – and was collecting avidly.

IMG_2168The most recent acquisition is an important panel of 18th century tiles that originally formed the centrepiece of a floor in one of the grand rooms of Villa Napoli, a gracious, abandoned building quietly falling into disrepair in an overgrown garden outside the walls of the old city.  The panel, which was made in Naples,  represents a castle set against a backdrop of Palermo’s rocky coastline, surrounded by a design of leaves, flowers and striking blue and yellow feathered birds.  It was sold by the owner of the Villa in about 1940 and acquired by Pio at an auction in Palermo in June last year.

The role that tiles played in the design of the luxurious palaces of the 18th century can be seen in the ballroom of one of Palermo’ best preserved palaces, Palazzo Alliata di Pietratagliata, still privately owned and lived in by the family.  On the marriage of their eldest son in the 18th century, the then owners embarked on a major redecoration of the reception rooms on the piano nobile.  The architect in charge of the works designed frescoes for the ceiling and complementary designs for the floor tiles.  Vito D’Anna, one of Terrace (right) from insidethe most important Sicilian artists of the time, was engaged to paint the ceiling frescoes and Neapolitan ceramicists  to produce the floor tiles.  The floor remains today, worn in places,  but otherwise in excellent condition.

Simple geometric patterns, recalling Sicily’s Arabic past, exist alongside the more elaborate designs – they are used particularly, but not only, in kitchens and on terraces.  Just occasionally they can be seen in the grandest of rooms.  They are among my favourites.

Le Stanze al Genio preserves a part of Sicily’s artistic heritage that would otherwise be lost – it’s also a great pleasure to visit.  It has received national and international recognition, but Pio Mellina is not likely to rest on his laurels.  Although it already houses the largest collection of Italian majolica tiles in Europe, the museum will soon be expanded with the opening of four new rooms, displaying an additional 1,800 tiles.  And, as a bonus, in one of the new rooms, Pio’s evocative photographs, on the theme of a vanishing Sicily, will be on display – photographs of culturally significant works that seem likely soon to disappear forever.

6 Responses to “Le Stanze al Genio – an inspiring collection of majolica tiles”

  1. Sally Says:

    Ceramics again – they have infinite appeal. I presume this gem is in Palermo …? Thank you for the wonderful description. I will have to wend my way there next time I am in the city …

    • kateludlow Says:

      Yes, the museum is right in the centre of the city, not far from the station. You would love it – definitely one for your next visit! Thank you for the comment.

  2. TTFN Says:

    Welcome back! This collection is obviously of major significance as it provides a record of a passing art/architectural heritage.

  3. jan Says:

    another welcome back! it was worth waiting for! one can never have enough tiles – and these are divine

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