What is left in the crucible

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To conduct an experiment which provides accurate results, the use of the right instruments is essential. Take, for example, a crucible, a concave vessel still used for chemical analyses in laboratories the world over.

Crucibles are usually made of ceramics, because it is able to maintain its characteristics unchanged even at extremely high temperatures, while the substances inside them change state, mutating into something else.

Ceramics was also the material that Filippo Marazzi decided to stake his future when, in 1935, he shut down the family grocery shop and started to turn out tiles in a “cardboard factory”, as his fellow residents of Sassuolo nicknamed it, responding to the odd appearance of a building held up by two rows of poplar

trees, between the railway and a drainage ditch. He was right: in the first half of the Twentieth Century, ceramics – for centuries a form of ornamentation reserved for the dwellings of popes, the aristocracy and sultans – gradually, centimeter by centimeter, made their way into the homes of the Italian middle classes, promising to render them sparkling clean and ultra-hygienic. Marazzi was ready to assist in this process and within a few years, with courage and entrepreneurial flair, the company grew and conquered the Italian market. But that was not enough, because paradoxically, in metaphorical terms ceramic tiles were hard to pin down: once they had gained access to bathrooms and kitchens, they soon broke through into dining areas, corridors and dining-rooms, in search of a shape which would release them from their grid pattern and of an identity over and above their function. We are talking about the post-war years: the years of i Pennellati, a collection hand-painted by painter and potter Venerio Martini, and Triennale, the “four curve tile” designed by star architect and designer Gio Ponti with colleague Rosselli. These were the first bubbles of creativity, a sign that the chemical reaction had begun and something was changing.

And proceeding from container to contents in a sort of reverse metonymy, our experiment had reached its second phase. The magma inside the ceramic vessel was now boiling, fusing ingredients that seemed completely incompatible until just a short time before. This was probably the image that flashed into the mind of another Filippo Marazzi, grandson of the founder, when in the Eighties he decided to open an in-house research and experimentation center, and to call it the crucible, or crògiolo in Italian. In the previous decade the company had registered the international patent for the single-firing process, which revolutionized the sector and propelled it to world leadership. And at the same time, it had invested in artistic and creative experimentation, with top fashion names Biki, Fourquet and Paco Rabanne, designer Nino Caruso and photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin, who captured the beauty of the material, the coatings and the conveyor belts inside the factory.

“Transforming matter through form, light and colour to bring it to life: this is what producing ceramics means to Marazzi,” Filippo Marazzi explained. “Over time, this vocation and mission have expanded to become a broader research project, in which the company has involved artists, architects and designers.”

The first half of the Eighties saw the birth of the “Marazzi Portfolios”, in which the company asked a group of contemporary photographers to interpret the collections in their own way. American Cuchi White photographed a red pepper on a grey tile, using light to underline the texture and contrasts of the Metropoli collection. Charles Traub, artist and director of the Light Gallery in New York, portrayed a man in a dark double-breasted suit hiding his face behind a beige tile. Luigi Ghirri, on the other hand, played with the geometry of spaces, uperimposing real or imaginary grids on those created by the tiles themselves. The photographs were printed in limited editions of 120.

An Italian photographer who had already achieved international critical fame, Ghirri was born at Scandiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, but at three years of age he moved to Braida, an outlying area of Sassuolo, to a huge building that was home to many families, and where every morning most of the men got on their bikes to go to work at the nearby ceramics factories. As an adult, his travels and exhibitions took him around Europe and the United States, but he always came back to this corner of Italy’s Emilia Region, and the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, to reflect on his latest ideas, conceive new projects, talk to his old friends and earn a living. And it was in this provincial context, where everybody knows everybody else, that the photographer and company came together.

They first worked together in 1975: Ghirri ventured timidly into the factory to shoot Marazzi ceramics. But unlike commercial photographers, used to repeating the industry clichés with their technique and experience, Ghirri became profoundly interested in his subject and interpreted it freely, with the aid of his own poetics. In his images, a tile becomes a backdrop for a rose, a surface on which two coloured pencils are placed, or the stage for a miniature piano.

The partnership continued until 1985, then the photographer and the company went their separate ways. Ghirri turned to his many other projects – including the exhibition “Esplorazioni sulla Via Emilia” staged in Reggio Emilia, Bologna and Ferrara in 1986 – and accepted commissions from other brands: Ferrari, Bulgari, Costa Crociere. Marazzi continued to use photography as a tool for overturning preconceived ideas. Over the years, it worked with French photographer John Batho, who used tiles to build a path leading to the sea, American Elliott Erwitt, who shot the “Disegniamo il mondo” advertising campaign and, more recently, Andrea Ferrari and Brit Adrian Samson, who came up with a new reading of Triennale. This leading-edge use of images influenced the work of the great artists and designers asked by Marazzi to experiment on its materials over time:

Roger Capron, Amleto Dalla Costa, Original Designers, Saruka Nagasawa, Robert Gligorov. The outcomes were products and collections that gradually swept away the clichés on tiles’ size, colour, decoration and intended uses.

Now we come to the third phase of the experiment: the least known yet also the most important. Once the substances have fused, what interests the chemist is not what has evaporated, but what is left in the crucible. Microscopic residues of waste used to measure the purity of the original contents.

For decades, the photographs which Ghirri took for Marazzi in the late Seventies and early Eighties have been conserved in the company’s archives. Many of them have never been published. Some have occasionally been chosen for an

exhibition or printed on the cover of a catalogue. Now, for the first time, they re-emerge together in a single volume, crowning the success of the partnership between a far-sighted company and an artist who turned his geometrical and inspired, ironic and emotionally charged gaze on a simple, two-dimensional, often ignored object. With wonderful results. So, it is now up to us to analyse these residues, record the results and wait for the ceramic material to cool.

At which point, the crucible will be ready for a new experiment.