On the traces of Tuscan terracotta
Whilst historians and football fans will tell you that the color of Florence is purple, seen from the heights of the panoramic Piazzale Michelangelo, the city is actually a sea of red.
Terracotta can be found in buildings and gardens throughout the Tuscan capital. From the tiles on the magnificent dome designed by Brunelleschi for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore to the decorative vases and urns which adorn Florence's splendid parks, you'll come across terracotta just about everywhere.
Tuscany's terracotta empire
The majority of the terracotta in Florence was made in Impruneta, the little town on the immediate outskirts of the city, and it is here that visitors should head to discover the secrets of its production and to purchase the perfect souvenir of Tuscany.
One of the characteristics of Impruneta's terracotta is that it is made with local clay quarried exclusively in the months of July and August. Add to this plenty of fire, air and water and the skill of the town's master "kiliners" and it is easy to see why, since medieval times, Florence's artists, architects and construction companies have been coming here for their vases, jars, bricks and tiles.
Not surprisingly, the streets of Impruneta are dressed from head to toe in terracotta.The town's house numbers, like its votive shrines, shop signs, and flower urns are all made from the soft red material.
Contemporary designers and architects the caliber of Renzo Piano and Mario Botta have frequently collaborated with the artisans of Impruneta, demonstrating how, however old this art may be, it is still very much alive and kicking
Impruneta's celebrity kiliners
Although the town's Basilica di Santa Maria, home to works by Luca della Robbia and Michelozzo da Forlì, is well worth a visit, the reason why most tourists come to Impruneta is to visit the kilns and, in particular, the old artisan studios.
In Mario Mariani's workshop visitors discover how the freshly molded clay is left to dry slowly until the greenish material turns a paler shade of grey. When a sufficient number of articles are dry, they are grouped together in one of the wood-burning kilns, where they are left to bake at searing temperatures for as many as three days.
It is this "baptism by fire" which produces the distinctive red color of Impruneta's terracotta. Fornace Masini is another centuries' old firm, complete with original courtyard in which large decorative urns and statues are displayed, and two 18th century kilns.
Despite being one of the oldest businesses in Impruneta, Terrecotte di Poggi Ugo produces an impressive collection of modern pottery, designed by contemporary artists.
If the trip to Impruneta's kilns and pottery shops has given you an appetite, make your way to the town's "Il Battibecco restaurant, famous for its "Peposo alla fornacina": a traditional meat casserole cooked in red wine and seasoned with abundant pepper.
Legend has it that the dish was invented by Impruneta's "kiliners", who had the habit of cooking their dinner in the same oven used to bake their vases and bricks.
Addresses to remember
Fornace Masini - via delle Fornaci, 57
Fornace Mario Mariani - via di Cappello, 29
Terracotte di Poggi Ugo - via Imprunetana, 16
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