Sicily’s antique majolica tiles – an interview with Pio Mellina …

17 May, 2013


Pio Mellina has been collecting the antique majolica floor tiles of southern Italy since he was a child.  Several years ago, he created a small museum in one of Palermo’s many ancient palaces and called it   Le Stanze al Genio.  The museum has already received national and international recognition and is on the ‘must see’ list for many visitors to the city.  It was a pleasure to spend some time there talking to Pio about the collection.

*      *      *

Pio,   I’m curious to know where your interest in these tiles came from and how you got started collecting them.  

Well – I was very young, only 11 or 12 years old, and I really loved these tiles – the designs and the colours.  There was an enormous variety of designs: geometric, floral, birds, animals, people, everything and  I found them fascinating. Really exciting.   I don’t really know why I started collecting –  it just happened.  At that stage, I had no interest in where the tiles might have come from, or what their stories might have been – I was just interested in the tiles themselves.  I don’t know – I was certainly not a sporty sort of child, for one thing I was a bit overweight, so maybe I was going to be drawn to collecting something.  I lived near via Liberta’, at the other end of town, but I used to search for tiles in the little street markets that were then all over the place in the old city.  I  really developed an absolute passion – and before long I had a lot of tiles!

IMG_2173Where did you keep them? 

At home, in the basement.  In the end, I had a basement absolutely full of tiles.  It reached a point where I couldn’t remember all the pieces I had.  And that was when I began to think I should get the collection organised and open it to the public.

Were your parents collectors? 

No they weren’t at all, but I had an aunt and uncle who collected old stationery items – tins, labels, boxes, posters etc.  As you can see, I now have their collection here in the museum.  Also, although my parents weren’t collectors, I have to say that my mother was the greatest supporter of my collecting activities.  She would come with me searching for tiles in the most unlikely places – building sites, discarded building materials, little street markets.  Everywhere!  Then, later on, I had an Aunt who shared my passion and we would go together in search of tiles.   And for the last eight years I’ve been working with a group of friends who are all collectors and just as enthusiastic about tiles as I am.

What did your school friends think of your enthusiasm for tiles?  Did they understand it?

No, I can’t say they understood my interest in tiles, but they did understand my passion for collecting in general because many of them were collectors of other things e.g. beer cans, match boxes etc.  So we had collecting in common.

You have really created something quite special here …

It’s been a labour of love.  The project is completely self-funded – I’ve never received any contribution from the State.  Not even a euro.  So, yes, you’d have to say it’s a passion.

Which is how the best things are created …

I agree.  Passion enables you to overcome many difficulties.   And then I think the tiles are beautiful to see – a simple type of art that can be appreciated by anyone.  It’s a matter of taste which ones you prefer.  Some people prefer the geometric designs, some the more elaborate, the more baroque designs.  I have to say I’ve had great pleasure from seeing that the tiles, which were previously little known, have generated such enthusiasm.  In fact, in the last two years Le Stanze al Genio has been voted Palermo’s number one tourist attraction on the Trip Advisor website.  There are 122 attractions listed and Le Stanze al Genio is number one.  And something that gives me particular satisfaction, I’ve noticed that the tourists come back – either to see what has been added or to come back and look at things they’ve particularly liked.

Tell me a little bit about the collection

Well, there’s no doubt that the ancient palaces had a great influence on the production of these tiles.  Generally, the designs would be made by the architect, or by the most noted craftsmen,  in accordance with the client’s requirements.  Interestingly, there was always harmony between the design of the frescoed ceiling and the design of the floor tiles and sometimes noble families would have their family crest incorporated into the design of the floor tiles.   In general, though, the floor tile designs were either geometric or floral or mixed geometric and floral.

Tiles of this sort were not really used in the North – they are very much tied to the South.  Most of the production was done in Naples or Sicily – other regions had some, but not very much.  They began to be produced at the end of the 17th century and continued through the 18th and 19 centuries.   There were obviously some earlier, but this is when the major production started.

Which was the more important centre of manufacture – Palermo or Naples?  Which made the most beautiful tiles?

Well, They were different.  At the end of the 17th century and early 18th century, Sicily was making wonderful things, then later in the 18th century, Naples had, in my view, reached a real high.  Then in the 19th century they were more or less on a par.

How many tiles are there in the collection?

I don’t know exactly, but about 2,300.  It is the largest collection of Italian majolica tiles in Europe – and, therefore, in the world.  At the moment we are preparing to open four news rooms and when they are open there will be about 4,000 tiles in the collection.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated lots of duplicates, which I’ve mounted and set aside.  From June to October of this year 300 of these will be on display in the section of the Swiss National Museum that is housed in Nyon castle, 25km north of Geneva on the shores of Lake Geneva.


When did you open the museum?

Well, I bought the apartment in 1998, but it was tenanted until 2001.  Then, I moved here and began to restore the premises.  They were in a very bad state.  I started to think about the museum – and had plenty of time as the restoration took a long time, starting with restoration of the ceiling frescoes.  Once the restoration was under control, I began cataloguing all the pieces: photographing them front and back and recording the provenance and date of manufacture.  In this, I received great help from Maria Reginella, author of the excellent book on maijolica floor tiles,  Maduni Pinti.

So many people leave Palermo – often in order to find work, but for other reasons too. You have stayed and you have made a real contribution to the city.  Were you ever tempted to leave?

Palermo is a city that is, in my view, beautiful, but at the same time difficult; however, I love being here.  I couldn’t live in the North.  Quite apart from the climate, there are cultural reasons.   Here in Palermo we have all the styles, from Arabo-Norman on – really everything.  It’s very rich: beautiful, very beautiful.  I work at the university and it would have been easy for me to have moved to another city.  And the collection would probably have attracted more visitors in, say, Milan.  Probably.  But that didn’t interest me.  The tiles belong to this part of the world.  They are Sicilian and Neapolitan.  The collection could, of course, be in Naples – that’s another city I’m in love with, a city of enormous richness and beauty. I feel very much at home there.  For me Palermo and Naples are one.  Naples’ palaces are more monumental because Naples was the seat of the royal court, but Palermo has things that Naples doesn’t.  For me, the two cities make a perfect whole.

5 Responses to “Sicily’s antique majolica tiles – an interview with Pio Mellina …”

  1. another fascinating one

  2. TTFN Says:

    Love the hat! Pio’s work at the University is presumably in related fields.

  3. Sally Says:

    I want I want I want … to see this place …

  4. kateludlow Says:

    The hat I am rather partial to too! Pio’s work at the university isn’t in fact connected with tiles – he works on the Erasmus project , which is a European student exchange programme – probably something to fund his collecting activities.
    Sally, there’s a simple solution!

  5. Cate Says:

    Wonderful! As you know my list for my next visit is very long but this is definitely at the top! Pio’s life-long passion is very inspiring and how fantastic that he will be exhibiting some of tiles near Geneva!

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