Stanze al Genio: preserving Italy’s majolica tile treasures

Collector Pio Mellina first took an interest in traditional Italian hand-painted “majolica” floor tiles around the age of 12, when he used to go rummaging around antique markets in Sicily with his art-loving mother.

What drew his attention to the tiles that he now displays to the public in Palermo was their brightly coloured patterns. These often revealed glimpses of the origin and era of their production,  which was concentrated in Sicily and Campania from the 15th century up until the early 20th century.

His childhood interest developed into a lifelong passion and he now has more than 4,900 tiles exhibited at his Stanze al Genio cultural association  within the noble Palazzo Torre Piraino, making it the biggest collection of its kind open to visitors. His hobby has turned into a mission to protect and preserve these handcrafted items that fascinate him.

“I used to go to the antique markets with my mum because we both liked the idea of finding really special objects,” said 48-year-old Mellina.

“I collected the tiles to save them, a bit like a Noah’s Ark. I loved the decorative style of the designs, and the colours, which are extraordinary even today as they are home-made — the old colours were linked to the local area, and created in household workshops using completely artisan and non-mechanised procedures.”

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His tiles are displayed on the walls of eight rooms, alongside collections of other unusual objects including ink bottles, pen and pencil containers, biscuit tins and theatre binoculars.

They are divided into sections based on their origin and time period, and include Neapolitan pieces with their rich and varied colours and advanced techniques, and those from Sicilian towns including Palermo and Burgio, near Agrigento, which often feature yellow and green shades. There are also some tiles on display in Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles.

The southern Italian tradition of majolica floor tiles originally drew influences from Spain and the Arab world but its motifs also reflect local customs and inspirations, distinguishing it from the production of the Spanish and Portugeuse Azulejos ceramic tile work and Delftware in the Netherlands.

Demand for Italian majolica tiles reached a peak in the 17th and 18th centuries, Mellina said, when noble families and Catholic Church authorities mainly in southern Italy would commission local artisans to handcraft tiles to cover the floors of their properties. At the time it was seen as a status symbol to have a floor in hand-painted majolica because of the cost involved.

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The tradition died out between the two world wars when the noble classes, who had liked to spend their money on cultural ornaments and sophisticated home design, lost a lot of their wealth, and the small craft factories closed, he said. Tile production is now usually on an industrial scale, and not necessarily linked to the local area.

“In those days, the rich and cultivated people put money into cultural things, even just for appearances, but they still spent it on beautiful houses, and traditions like majolica floors,” said Mellina. “Nowadays rich people will buy an SUV or a diamond-encrusted Rolex but they often do not know who Giotto or Leonardo Da Vinci was.”

While in the modern age there is also an increasing tendency to hire things and return them when they are not needed, for example using music and film streaming sites and car hiring and sharing, Mellina says his efforts to collect and own exquisitely handcrafted tiles with cultural and historical significance is the only way to  guarantee that they receive adequate attention and protection.

“It’s a bit like having children. If you have a child you look after it from birth onward, the attitude is not the same if you have a thing that you only use when it is needed. The commitment in terms of caring is completely different” he said.

“In the case of antique pieces, the fact of owning them implies a whole strategy in terms of maintenance, restoration and exhibition that only a life project can guarantee.”

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The Stanze al Genio collection, which Mellina was able to expand after selling an inherited property, can be viewed by groups and individuals who book an appointment in advance. Visitors can see a range of single tiles, as well as combinations of tiles that make up a larger design. Their value nowadays ranges from 400 euros for a good quality single tile to tens of thousands for large panels.

Highlights include a segment portraying the Castle of San Nicola l’Arena to the east of Palermo, painted by the Gurrello ceramist family around the end of the 17th century.

Other interesting pieces portray images from Pompeii and Herculaneum, as artists were inspired by the decorations revealed in these sites when they were re-discovered in the 18th century after being buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. The panel below for example recreates a famous mosaic from the vestibule floor of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, including the words “Cave Canem”, a warning to “Beware of the Dog”.

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Mellina’s decision to dedicate himself to these artifacts is linked to his belief that caring for the past is essential for ensuring a better future, especially for a country like Italy with its rich history and traditions.

“All societies that have forgotten the beautiful things that they achieved are societies that have become impoverished in some way,” he said.

With Palermo due to become Italian Capital of Culture in 2018, Mellina sees an opportunity for renewed focus on heritage, and for more people to discover how much the Sicilian capital has to offer on this front, from aristocratic palaces to archaeological remains and UNESCO sites and influences including Norman, Arab and Byzantine.

“This is the chance to show off our town and the extraordinary things it holds. Venice, Florence and Rome are well-known, but if we are talking in terms of monuments, culture and heritage, Palermo is certainly not a second rate city.”

palermo3Aside from developing the majolica museum, Mellina is also working on photography projects that capture sites in Sicily which have been abandoned and are degrading due to lack of funds and attention, with a particular focus on ruins. Again with the aim of boosting awareness of Sicily’s culture and heritage and the need to protect it, he hopes to put these on display soon. Here are a few examples:

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