Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 11, 2016

Deruta, Italy: Famous Maiolica in Umbria

In a recent post, I showed you a few of the highlights of the medieval hill town of Todi, Italy. Today, let’s travel north along busy E45, following the route of the ancient Roman Via Tiberina toward Perugia.

Umbria with Deruta

Todi is at the bottom, Perugia is at the top. At top right is perhaps the principal attraction of Umbria for many travelers: Assisi. We’ll stop 25 kilometers from Todi at another medieval hill town, Deruta.

(By the way, that wavy blue line along the highway is the Tiber River, on its way south to Rome.)

Deruta has a storied past, much of it rife with turmoil. Its very name signifies “ruin,” stemming probably from the fact that after being an important place along the Roman route, it was destroyed in the 6th Century Gothic War. Deruta recovered in the Middle Ages, but never managed to maintain its independence from Perugia, and then was dealt a crippling blow by the plague in the 14th Century (which also devastated nearby Todi).

Deruta is, like Todi, a fascinating Medieval-Renaissance hilltop town, full of historical architecture. It’s a real place, not a theme park; people live there, and there are shops, bakeries, restaurants and day-to-day life.

What brought us there, though, was something that craftspeople in Deruta have been producing since the early Middle Ages: ceramics. Like Gubbio to the north,  Urbino and Pesaro in the Marche region and other Italian towns and cities, Deruta is famed for its maiolica. The colors are vibrant, and the thousands of different motifs are captivating.

ceramics in Deruta Brad Nixon (300x640)

Maiolica (British spelling majolica) is tin-glazed earthenware. The tin glaze produces a fine white base into which painted designs can be fixed and, when fired, have spectacular, permanent brilliance. There’s a lot of chemistry and technical control of the clay, glazes and firing to achieve the desired result, and Deruta has been a center of the craft for a thousand years. Not only are the forming of the pieces and the glazing highly developed crafts there, but the painting of the traditional designs is a core part of the work’s appeal.

Deruta hallmark Brad Nixon 3500_1 (640x498)

“Painted by hand Deruta”

When you visit Deruta, give some attention to the town itself, but reserve as much time as possible to study the impressive variety of maiolica on display in the shops. There are made-for-tourism pieces, high end shops (which tend to be located up in the town, away from the Via Tiburina), and some dealers in genuine antiquities who will show you pieces from the 15th and 16th Centuries, when Deruta’s ceramics arguably reached their highest level of quality, and were world-renowned. There are even outlet stores for ceramics.

I also recommend spending an hour in the Museo Regionale Della Ceramica Deruta, where you’ll learn far more than I can teach you about the history and production of maiolica, and see stunning examples of maiolica in their impressive collection.

The Counselor and I don’t invest a great deal of time shopping on our trips, at least not for relatively expensive goods, but we’d decided that we wanted to have some of Deruta’s famous ware. While I helped make a decision about what to buy, she carried the weight of the negotiation with the shopowner in Italian with sprezzatura vera. Here she is with the shopkeeper, who’s holding our salad bowl and one of the four pasta bowls that now reside here at Rancho Retro.

MV with ceramic dealer Brad Nixon (640x515)

How do they look on the table? Here’s a dish of squash and quinoa with shaved parmesan cheese:

squash and quinoa Brad Nixon (640x506)

And this is tuna and radicchio salad:

tuna radicchio salad Brad Nixon (640x517)

That’s right, they get used regularly: more fun than having them sit on a shelf. Here’s the 10″ salad bowl and an 8″ pasta bowl, waiting for whatever comes out of the Under Western Skies kitchen next:

Deruta ceramic bowls Brad Nixon 3498_1 (640x480)

It was delightful to talk with the people in the shops, whose pride in their town’s heritage and knowledge of the wares were both evident. A thousand years of history and accomplishment, and you can carry it home (or, better, have it shipped!)

Have a favorite collecting story from your travels? Let everyone know by leaving a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017




  1. As I was reading your post, I kept thinking “I hope they brought some majolica home with them.” And then when I reached your post’s end, I discovered “Voila!” — you had. Congrats on a beautiful find and purchase. I really love those ceramics, too. 😍


    • There’s another notable maiolica piece here that will appear in a future post about Gubbio. You may be familiar with it.


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