Why the future of Apulian design is bound to its historic craftsmanship
Words: Robert Arnold Edward Pugin
Crafts in the ancient world, both in their purpose and how they were crafted, were as varied as the cultures that produced them. Artisanship was an integral part of the lives of the people who created them and used them. More importantly, perhaps, they were an expression of the culture and of the lives of the people at a given time.
The people of the past, just like those of today, did not all live adventurous lives, but still felt the need to record stories of their time and their family. The stories were told through their handcrafts – from the naïve to even sophisticated designs – and today, many thousands of years later, we can see the stories illustrated by different crafts of past generations in the most prestigious museums of the world. We stand before these treasures, hidden behind protective glass displays, somewhat in awe at a simplistic piece requiring such protection and humble at the thought, how far have we actually come?
Throughout Europe, wherever humans inhabited they engaged in producing crafts such as stone implements, pottery, weaving, and metalwork. Craft technologies and materials have evolved, many handed down from one generation to the next. As they have in Puglia, where for thousands of years the work of the craftsman was linked to olive trees and the oil of olives. Probably the oldest olive tree is between 3000 and 4000 years old, and the region is covered with olive trees dating back to the 5th century BC.
The many natural materials of Puglia were molded into practical use by the craftsman resulting in the production of woven baskets made entirely of olive tree branches – one of the most antique Apulian crafts, and the historic craft of pottery which can be traced back to circa 600 BC. Among the most famous here and native to Puglia is the two-handled Orcio jar with a unique majolicia glaze, designed for the transport and storage of olive oil and wine. Apulian pottery features four regional styles: Daunian, Peucetian, Messapian, and Canusan complemented with four principle forms ranging from a round-bottomed footless krater to intricate animal-shaped surface designs.
Basket weaving was a traditional craft of the people living off the land who twisted, carved, and weaved olive branches into baskets and used to collect olives and carry bread. They also wove large oblong low-sided baskets used for drying vegetables and fruit for winter food. Every creation had a function, leveraging the wealth of simple yet accessible materials that lasted.
Salento’s tradition of rope making is also an ancient craft. For centuries, the ropemakers of Bagnolo were known as “zzucarri”, and is still used today when referring to contemporary rope makers. They used reeds and marsh grasses to weave twisted strands for making rope and twine to be used for washing lines, bundling things together, strands for chairs, twine for carpets and coverings, as they do today.
Imported over time was the craft of mosaics which local Apulian craftsmen excelled at, and which is undergoing a revival by new generations. In the medieval period, for the dual purpose of proselytizing and educating Christian worshippers, the use of frescoes, mosaics, icons, and scrolls was abundant. Some of the most impressive include the Basilica of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria in Galatina, and the Otranto Cathedral. Mosaics in particular, were used to present with a folk-law like vividness, the battle between good and evil in the Christian message.
The most important masserias in Puglia seek to incorporate these elements with the intention for preservation and attention to the historic value and authenticity that these crafts offer. The young generations are beginning to experiment with original materials, revisiting their form and function to explore new uses, and are showcasing impressive skill at regional craft shows and art fairs.
Puglia, like the other regions of Italy, benefits from the “Made in Italy” brand in use since 1980, but it is also an inherent part of this brand. The label ensures the traditional uniqueness of Italian craftsmanship that has passed from one generation to the next and it continues to be celebrated internationally as a point of reference for the finest level of craftsmanship and quality. In Puglia, these handcrafts continue to flourish thanks to the numerous small and medium artisan workshops.
Contribute to the Puglia Crafts Guild
The aim is to teach craft skills for a remuneration, arrange tourist coteries and sell Apulian crafts to other nationalities; these include embroidery, glassworks, and coloring techniques, stonework, ceramics, and textile