It seems every time you open a magazine, there is a new list of “this season’s must-haves”. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gardening magazine, a home decorating journal or a high fashion magazine–trends come and go with nary a backward glance. As you look back at your design choices over the years for your home, your clothes, your garden, you’ll usually discover that it has been the simple classics that have weathered the test of time. Fads like jeggings and hypertufa pots may come and go, but the little black dress and classic Impruneta Italian terra cotta planters have held their aesthetic value for generations and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
If the term terracotta conjures up images of stacks of dusty orange common clay nursery pots, you’ve probably never experienced the subdued beauty of Italian terracotta from the regions of Impruneta or Siena. The rich earth in these beautiful Italian towns near Florence boasts an extremely high mineral content which is exceptionally high in iron, calcium, aluminum and copper. The Impruneta clay is so revered that only seven potters are licensed by the Italian government to use the name on their wares. The Siena region has a similar richness but with less iron and sandstone in the earthen composition. These minerals are what give Italian terra cotta its distinctive color and excellent frost resistance. The secret of these wonderful clays is revealed by investigating the two major factors which set Italian terracotta pottery above the rest.
The first factor is the type of clay that is used. Impruneta clay is found only by the river Arno near Florence and has been used to make pottery for at least the last ten centuries. In addition to the minerals, this gray clay contains particles of sandstone which give it a special strength and texture. This robust mixture makes the resulting pottery incredibly strong in the same way that adding gravel to a concrete mix binds it together to create a more durable finished product. It is then fired at over 1000 degrees for 36 hours and cooled in the kiln for another 70 hours. (The words terra cotta actually mean cooked earth.) The result is a beautiful soft rosy color not found anywhere else in the world. The pots from Sienna, with a different clay composition, are more red in color. The second factor is how the Impruneta and Siena pots are created. There are several techniques that are employed, all labor -intensive. One method is to hand-apply the clay, pounding it over an inverted form which shapes the clay to the desired form and size. This is then smoothed and decorated. Another method is to hand-pack the clay into plaster cases, a technique perfected hundreds of years ago. Larger pots are often made free-form entirely by hand. After the bowl or basin of the pot is created, the rim is applied by hand. It’s easy to tell a handmade pot–when you run your hand under the rim there is a deep relief where you can fit your fingers. Machine-made or cast-formed pots have a flat, less dimensional rim with no overhang. When the artist is satisfied with the appearance of the pot, it is then fired as previously mentioned. This results in an extremely strong pot with great structural integrity. Designs are actually molded into the pot and become an integral part of the structure instead of being “applied” as an afterthought. Another great way to identify one of these Tuscan masterpieces is by giving it a sharp rap with your knuckles. The resulting clear, sharp peal of a bell signifies that you indeed are in the presence of one of these amazing pots – high fired with no cracks.
Impruneta and Siena terracotta ornaments have classic good looks that serve as the perfect counterpoint to a wide variety of flowers and foliage. They truly “go” with everything. They are available in a myriad of pleasing shapes and designs ranging from classic rolled rim pots to ornately sculpted planters. Their nature-inspired designs have appealed to discriminating gardeners for centuries. The Biltmore Estate has several large Impruneta pots that have graced their gardens since the 1800s. Imagine how tough it was to import these from Italy more than 200 years ago. These are some rugged beauties that were able to survive that journey. Another spot you may have seen Impruneta terracotta is at the New York Botanical Gardens. They chose large classic rolled rim pots to showcase their gorgeous specimens of lemon trees.
These planters will last more than a lifetime with proper care. They’re extremely hardy and can be left outside to weather without fear but it is imperative to make sure the pot is lifted off the ground and that the drainage hole is unobstructed so water has the ability to drain freely. Because there are many ways to break a pot no one can guarantee their longevity – but it won’t be because the temperature dropped below freezing.
The use of clay to produce both models and finished sculpture has been important to Italian artists such as Donatello and Luca della Robbia since the early 15th century. They took advantage of the special clay found in the area and consequently helped make Florence an important center for Italian art. Still today you occasionally find beautiful, classical statues with graceful figures and lovely faces sculpted in the distinctive rose pink clay of Impruneta.
If you’re looking for an investment quality heirloom that will withstand the test of time, look no further than Impruneta or Siena terracotta. You won’t be disappointed. And while there’s nothing wrong having a little fun with the latest fads, it’s the timeless classics that will pull you through season after season.
We are so very proud to include Impruneta Italian Terracotta in our quality inventory & garden.