Examples of pieces found in the well

Well, well, well

The amazing discovery of a thousand Orvieto pots in a water shaft

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Medieval pottery does not, today, have the glamour of Italy’s more famous art from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries — those fabulous frescos, mosaics, sculptures and churches that millions of people travel to Italy every year to see. But 120 years ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, medieval pottery was as ardently sought after as any of Italy’s art. The town of Orvieto was well known to have been a major centre of pottery production in the Middle Ages. The German professor and collector Wilhelm Bode — he of Berlin’s Bode Museum — even declared that all medieval Italian pottery was “Orvieto-ware”.

Orvieto jars from the 13th and 14th century

Orvieto was indeed a great centre of pottery production, as Professor Bode thought — only most of it wasn’t medieval. It was modern masquerading as medieval. But in the early twentieth century few people outside Orvieto were aware of the scale of contemporary production of Orvieto-ware.

Sophisticated taste in Europe and America was just discovering “the primitive”. Picasso and other artists were causing a sensation by copying African and Polynesian masks and sculptures and inserting them into their pictures. Medieval Italian pottery’s simple designs and narrow range of colours were suddenly all the rage.

This was an authentic “people’s art”, created by, and for, ordinary folk. Rich American collectors with vast resources such as J.P. Morgan hoovered up vases, jugs and plates. So did British buyers: much of the V&A’s enormous collection of medieval Italian pottery was acquired in the years before the First World War.

Museums are not eager to discover that they own a large number of fakes

The V&A’s collection now gathers dust, unviewed and unloved — as do many of the substantial collections of medieval Italian pottery in America and Europe built up during the relatively short-lived mania for Orvieto-ware. What happened?

Essentially, Italian medieval pottery was a victim of its own success. The enthusiasm for it amongst collectors and museum directors sent prices way up. High prices attracted swarms of forgers, many of whom became extremely competent. Their productions could not be told apart from the originals, even by the most expert of connoisseurs. Forgers became adept at burying their work in appropriate locations in Orvieto, making sure it would be dug up later and declared “a wonderful original”.

Orvieto-ware exhibited at the Besso Library in Rome

The proliferation of forgery had a disastrous effect on prices. Everyone involved in the trade came to realise that there were large numbers of forgeries in circulation. But there was no reliable way of telling a modern fake from a medieval original. Result: buyers avoided what they knew had a good chance of turning out to be fraudulent. The market for Orvieto-ware crashed.

It never recovered. Although there are now chemical and other tests that can definitively identify a piece as a modern fake, those tests are expensive and tricky to administer. Museums and private collectors are not eager to discover that they own a large number of nineteenth-century fakes so those tests are only rarely applied to items in their collections. When it comes to Italian pottery made at any time from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, it is still true that no-one can be completely sure what is, and what is not, a fake. All that anyone can be sure of is that many of the pieces of Italian pottery that are claimed as medieval will turn out to date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

That is why the recent discovery of more than a thousand pots at the bottom of a well just outside Orvieto is so extraordinary: for once, everyone can be sure that every apparently medieval piece found there is genuine. This time, there is no possibility of forgery. The pieces were found in a well that was originally built around 1200. It was permanently sealed up and the settlement around it abandoned at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was only rediscovered last year in the course of excavations of the Etruscan site in the valley next to Orvieto.

Orvieto maiolica jars from the second half of the 15th century

The first exhibition of the pottery found at the bottom of that well has just finished at Fondazione Marco Besso in Rome. And what extraordinary pots they are! Looking at them, you can understand why medieval Italian pottery appealed so strongly to connoisseurs a century ago: the rugged simplicity and directness of the designs are a striking contrast to the fiddly, over-elaborate complexity of the “decadent” ceramics made in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their “naiveté” has a very powerful effect. It is very easy to imagine them on medieval tables. They catapult you directly back into the daily life of people 500 or 600 years ago.

The amazingly good condition of many of these pieces is down to the water in the well, which never ran dry: at more than 11 metres deep, the well starts six metres beneath the water table. The water seems to have preserved the ceramics in a way that being left in the air would not have done. The pots were laid down in chronological order, with the oldest at the bottom and the most recent at the top — so the deeper down the archaeologists dug in the well, the older the pottery they found.

The oldest pieces are from the beginning of the thirteenth century, which is when a community of Franciscan monks is documented as having started a monastery at the location. The Franciscans would later move to the inside of the town of Orvieto. They would be replaced by monks belonging to another order, the Servites. It made no difference to the well, however, which continued to be used by the local inhabitants, whoever they were.

Listing of items for auction at Sotheby’s, 1914

Over 1,000 pots and other ceramics have been found in the well. Why so many? One explanation, says Professor Danilo Leone, one of the lead excavators of the site, is that people used pots to draw water from that well several times every day. “If, on just one per cent of the occasions they did that, the pot they were using accidentally got detached and fell … then over five centuries, you’re going get a lot of pots and jugs at the bottom.”

The accidental drop-off rate must have been much fewer than one in a hundred. Still, whatever the rate of loss, it happened frequently enough for the archaeologists to find parts of an instrument designed to help people retrieve jugs and vases that fell in to it. The instrument, known as a volpara, looks a little like a hanger with several hooks. Something similar was used by peasants in Italy to fish out items that been accidentally dropped into wells up until the 1950s.

Professor Lucio Riccetti is sceptical of that explanation. He runs the Fondazione Marco Besso and organised the exhibition. He is an expert on medieval Orvieto-ware. “A lot of the jugs found at the bottom of the well are just too small to have been used to draw water from it”, Professor Riccetti told me. “They were also far too valuable to use for that purpose. Big jugs have been found at the bottom of the well. They are plain and undecorated. Those would have been used to collect water from the well. But the small decorated jugs wouldn’t.”

So how did so many small decorated jugs end up there? One explanation is the plague. When the Black Death arrived in 1348, one medieval view of how it spread maintained that all wells had been poisoned, and anything that had been in contact with water from a well would pass on the plague. So jugs and pots that had been used to hold water from this well were thrown down it in an effort to ensure they would not spread the disease. The well was sealed up, at least for a period. Once the infection was over, the well came back into use. That theory of how the disease was spread was of course wrong. The Black Death returned to Orvieto and the land surrounding it, as it did to the rest of Italy, many times over the next four hundred years.

Another explanation is that some of the pottery at the bottom of the well got there because marauding armies threw it down the well. Or perhaps the inhabitants did, hoping to protect it from being pillaged. The valley next to Orvieto suffered a great deal from attacks by soldiers, so both are possible.

The detritus found at the bottom of the well also indicates that there was a kiln, and a pottery workshop, near it. Pieces that had been damaged during the firing process, or where the potter had bungled the design or the execution in some way, were thrown into the well. These broken shards provide interesting insights into the process of pottery manufacture.

Examples of pieces found in the well

Judging by the relatively small number of pieces that were thrown away because something went wrong during the course of production, the artisans achieved a high degree of accuracy when manufacturing pottery.

Not every piece of pottery at the bottom of the well turns out to be Orvieto-ware, in the literal sense of having been made in Orvieto or near it. There are ceramics that were made in many other places: Siena, Florence, Deruta, Faenza, and other cities in north and central Italy. The Servites gave permission for a seasonal market or fair to be held in the area around the well.

It meant that objects were brought here for sale from all over Italy, indeed from all over Europe — and some of them ended up at the bottom of the well. The Servites eventually left, and the site was abandoned, the stones of the church and the monastic buildings taken away and used elsewhere. No one knew the well was there. There was nothing on the surface to indicate it existed.

The excavations of the valley outside Orvieto started over 20 years ago. The archaeologists were looking for evidence of the sacred Etruscan site of Fanum Vultumnae. They found an inscription in Etruscan identifying the area as “the place of heaven”, and the foundations of at least two Etruscan temples, one of them sacred to Voltumna, the chief Etruscan god. They uncovered a “sacred way” leading to that temple. The combination was enough for the archaeologists to conclude that this was almost certainly Fanum Vultumnae. Both the Etruscan city of Orvieto, and the sacred site in the valley outside it, were eliminated by the Romans in 264BC. They besieged Etruscan Orvieto for two years, and then went about their destructive work with a typically brutal thoroughness.

What the Romans didn’t destroy, they converted into baths, houses, public buildings, and temples dedicated to their own gods. By the time the Franciscans arrived in the early thirteenth century, the Roman buildings had long since disappeared. The monks found a small, ruined church which they rebuilt. They may have been the ones who dug the well. They certainly seem to have been the people who first started chucking pottery down it.

Professor Lucio Riccetti states that “this discovery is by far the most significant for the study of medieval Italian pottery for decades, and quite possibly ever. Once the finds from the well have all been properly catalogued and reviewed, they will change the way we understand medieval pottery.” And in addition to being historically significant, the pottery from the well is also strikingly beautiful. Let’s hope that there will soon be another exhibition of these marvellous objects.

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