Marcello Aversa: a sculptor of Neapolitan crèches from Sorrento.
His name complements sustainability, harmony, tradition… the keystones of artisanship and why it is so precious.
In Part 1 of the following three-part interview series, Professor Giovanni Fiorentino (Director of the Mediterranean Center of Environmental Education - CMEA) asks Marcello to delve further into these topics as he retraces the journey that let him to discover his craft and lifelong passion.
(CLICCA QUI per la versione in ITALIANO.)
Marcello Aversa (MA):
I accepted this invitation, not to receive praise, but with the hope that my experience might be useful to some, if not all of you.
Prof. Giovanni Fiorentino (GF):
May we begin by exploring Marcello’s relationship with the word “soil”?
What does the term “soil” mean to you? What relationship do you have with “soil”?
Soil, understood as clay has been central theme throughout my life.
Clay is what I use today to create my miniature sculptures [in terracotta]. Clay is what I used [as a primary material] 20 years ago in the kilns of Maiano, a small village located in Sant’Agnello, where baking stones for wood-burning ovens are still produced today. In fact, until the end of the Second World War, these ovens were also used to produce terracotta roofing tiles and shingles; however, the manual labor that this entailed made these products prohibitively expensive in an industrial age - they are no longer made by hand.
Potters then began to work with pottery wheels to make terracotta grills, piggy banks and characteristic objects like “il vrularo,” a perforated pot used to roast dampened chestnuts. Another interesting product [typical to the potting tradition of Maiano] was a small cup that farmers in Schito, a neighborhood of Castellammare, used to cover artichokes to make them more tender when cooked. The production of terracotta pipes was also popular.
The best part is that terracotta factories, beyond their production range, assisted farmers and had an almost perfectly sustainable production cycle.
You speak of factories. Tell me about them. What were they? How were they integrated in the surrounding community? How many people did they employ? Were they important?
Until the early 50s, there were 8 kilns in the village of Maiano; between the families and laborers that worked there, these factories employed about 40 people.
There are texts dating as early as the the late 1400s that talk about Sorrento’s potting tradition. In the second half of the 1800s, Monsignor Bonaventura Gargiulo, a Native of Maiano, also wrote about this craft in a journal called “Stelle e Fiore.”
Terracotta tiles from Maiano are special because of the type of clay that is found in our soil. Once the clay is baked, it remains very porous, which favors efficient absorption and retention of heat. This makes bakers very happy... It helps them reduce costs of production as they consume less wood in their wood-burning ovens.
The clay, which is typically found between 1-10m below ground, was traditionally extracted from local citrus groves. The large ditches that resulted, were later filled with waste - of course, nothing toxic: ashes from the kiln, broken pieces of tile or pots, stones and unused clay. Farmers would also discard of natural waste in these ditches: leaves, small branches, and rotten oranges and lemons that had fallen to the ground. This combination of biodegradable waste favored drainage and the growth of new plants as their roots would not be hindered by the dense clay that would otherwise be dispersed throughout the soil.
The terracotta factories also reused byproducts of other crafts: woodchips from local carpenters, “nuzzoli,” or olive pits, from local olive presses and small quantities of wood. Once the kiln finished burning, brickmakers would sift through the sediment that remained in the combustion chamber and extract charcoal that was used for cooking in the same terracotta grills that they produced.
(Ph Credit: http://www.marcelloaversa.it/)
Marcello, what exactly did you do as a “mattonaio,” or brickmaker? Was it tiring? How old were you when you inherited your father’s factory? How do you remember this period of your life?
Mattonaio. This word was my nightmare when I was little.
When teachers asked our parents’ professions, my classmates would list a series of jobs and professions that sounded much more important than my father’s: doctor, office worker, store owner. . . I had a hard time uttering “mattonaio.”
Even though I took my first steps among my family’s factory, it wasn’t until I started working along side my father that I truly understood the tremendous sacrifices that he made to ensure that our family lacked nothing. It was then that I truly appreciated that old mattonaio.
When I was 19, my father passed away and my uncle and I became the shared owners of our factory.
Kneeling on the ground for nearly ten hours a day with my hands in water to rinse molds, the same water whose surface would freeze during the winter months… to the point that my hands chilled to the bone. I made bricks and pavers.
I earned much more than I would have as an accountant (the field that I specialized in at university) or behind a desk in a public office. But in life, as you know, Professor, nothing comes easily.
And then, at a certain point, you dove into the presepe [Nativity Scene], that is, you rediscovered a local tradition that reconciles creativity with manual labor… and you took a gamble.
For a series of reasons, I developed a passion for the very thing that changed my entire life: the Neapolitan crèche.
At Christmas time, I built large Nativity scenes, first in the Chapel of Saint Rocco near my home, and later in other churches around Sorrento. I also won a few awards in a contest organized by Professor Antonino Fiorentino. At the same time, I began to receive compliments from artists that I always admired, such as Michele Di Maio, a painter from Sorrento, and the Parlato brothers.
Then one day, don’t ask me how, I began to make the nativity scenes smaller, creating small blocks of terracotta, upon which I would place small figurines no larger than 2cm.
Sometimes people ask my why I began to miniaturize my sculptures; maybe I was inspired by a passage from Natale in Casa Cupiello, by the great Edoardo de Filippo:
A crèche is as grand as the real world, where a merry swarm of miniature people hurry to reach a shed where a miniature donkey and a miniature cow, who with their breath, warm Baby Jesus: a miniature, but grand baby that trembles and cries as any small baby would tremble and cry.
This passion of mine made me happy, but at the same time it troubled me because I realized that my real job had turned me into an automaton. I woke up early each morning and I kneaded clay to make bricks; in the evening, I counted what I produced and calculated how much the day’s work was worth. In other words, I had become a version of Mr. Chermisi form The Little Prince, my second favorite book after the Gospel.
It was at that time that I made one of the most important decisions of my life: I left the family kiln and began sculpting crèches and shepherds.
Translated by Salvatore Ambrosino.
Stay tuned for Part 2 ... Coming tomorrow.