You cannot find Castelli by accident, unless of course, you take the wrong turn about 20 times on the San Gabriele exit from the L’Aquila expressway east of Gran Sasso.
But if you do just happen to arrive at Castelli, you will have some pleasant surprises. The first is the magnificent hulking walls of Gran Sasso towering above you, like the black skirts of a Victorian dowager. The second are the remnants of clay mining that form the backdrop of the hill overlooking the town. The third is to see the town perched on a rock massif above a verdant valley.
And the fourth is the most interesting as, when you drive slowly around the multiplicity of bends and turns into the town piazza, apart from cafes, a few restaurants, a church and town administrative buildings, the only shops all sell local pottery, the famous art pottery of Castelli.
To understand Castelli and its ever-dwindling population, you need only to enter a bar or a pottery gallery and engage the owner in friendly banter. The ceramics and ceramic art of Castelli date back about 1000 years, and the gullies are what remains of the clay quarry of many centuries before. As with many artisanal towns, the artists grew in stature in the shadow or on top of the mine.
The population now is just over 1000 souls, most with clay coursing through their veins. There are a few remaining pottery producers yet, as in other centres in Italy, there are many painters and glazers testing their artistic skills. In the Saturdays of August every year, these artists exhibit their works everywhere along the main street, as soon as you turn the corner which leads from the village to the high mountains.
The shops “spring up like weeds” in different corners of the town: in its ancient “Ruve” on the main street or in the Piazza Rome, and one needs to venture in to realize the wide range of artistic styles that are modern Castelli. The styles reflect the different artistic interests of the family members, as all are involved in the generation of new ceramic art. In Art & Décor we find a range of cubism inspired pottery painted with la donne nude; plates and ornaments each with a thick veil of crystalline glaze creating a crazed mist over the scene; traditional enamel-painted brick with the subjects of the ‘second heaven’ of San Donato.
Yet, for us the highlight experience is to view the traditional ceramic art of Castelli by Marco Carbone, art that could be on a canvas, art that allows no mistake in the artist’s portrayal of many figures in rustic and erotic scenes.
What keeps Castelli alive is the famous school of ceramics founded in 1906 and its associated museum. But the pride of Castelli is about 1 kilometre up the hill from town, a renaissance period church – San Donato – that 400 years ago was given its ‘second heaven’, a roof of glazed bricks, 800, many of them with a different scene, floral and geometric motsif, animals and portraits of people in many colours. Apparently, Carlo Levi was moved to describe this small ceiling as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Majolica’.
Castelli is a truly Italian rustic town. We found one restaurant, named after Iolanda, where the repast comprised all locally produced fare (and verdure from the owner’s private ‘orto’ – vegetable garden), and the home-made ‘rosato’ tempted one to abandon the drive home to Rome. We understood why one group of four had ventured from Tivoli to sample the lunchtime fare and atmosphere. Apparently, there are more restaurants of similar quality, all nearby.
Our summary, is that Castelli is a must for those who admire art pottery, it is in a magnificent lush location, lulled if I may say so, under the imposing north face of Monte Camicia , and its fare will sate the palate. So do not rush headlong through the Gran Sasso tunnel down to the Adriatic, slow down a little and venture off to spend a day, and a few euro, sampling the arts of Castelli.