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In-depth: the history of Manifattura Chini

Since many years the activity of the Chini family represents the heart of deep analyses and studies, in order to give to this activity a right position in the artistic culture, matured in Italy between 1800 and 1900. We do not want to dwell on here and go into the artistic dimension of Chini ceramics, but we would like to go back over the roots and contents of the activity of the Fornaci San Lorenzo. So this brief document will represent a sort of travel in the artistic bent that this family is growing up from decades, within an area purely Tuscan but at the same time in a very important adventure for the development of modern style.
Till now anybody has examined and studied the production of Fornaci San Lorenzo, a production that can be also studied from some models found in the territory of Borgo San Lorenzo: the listing of this models allow us to understand the importance this family has had in this territory, leaving some objects with an elevate craft quality.
The presence of Chini family in Mugello dates back to the beginning of 1800 with Pietro Alessio, the progenitor of the family, who was a decorator and who was followed in this activity by the most part of his descendants. Chino Chini reminds in a note of 25th of July 1946 while observing a drawing of his grandfather Pietro Alessio: "Era un autodidatta che con la sua sola passione per l'arte e volontà fattiva, considerando i tempi, era arrivato già a 26 anni (era nato nel 1800 e morto in età di anni 75) ad essere un abile e pratico Decoratore, Maestro ai figli che ben 5 (Tito mio Padre, Pio, Dario, Siro, Leto), seguirono poi in Arte il suo indirizzo e la Tecnica da lui praticamente appresa. Il piccolo disegno indica anche l'indole di conservazione di quanto andava studiando e faceva in disegni e studi di lavori, libri che andava con intelligenza acquistando e che a noi nipoti rivelano la grande e instancabile passione che aveva di apprendere in ogni ramo di Arte fino agli ultimi anni della sua vita e che trasmise ai figli per l'Arte, ed allo Zio Lino per le ricerche storiche, ed a tutti, anche la passione per la musica! in special modo ad Elio e Siro". (Pietro Alessio was an autodidact and thanks to his passion for the art and his will, he became a very good decorator when he was only 26 years old - he was born in 1800 and died at the age of 75 - furthermore he transmitted his passion and capability to his five sons - Tito the father of Chino, Pio, Dario, Siro, Leto - who, then, followed him in the art of decorating. Pietro Alessio used to study and read a lot and he usually bought many books, with intelligence, showing the indefatigable passion he had in learning everything in the field of Art until the last days of his life. This passion was also transferred to his sons as well as the passion for music.)
The fame of Chini family was marked out to the territory of Mugello until the end of 1800. The event which will give fame and importance to this family is the foundation in Firenze, at the end of 1896, of a small ceramics factory called "L'Arte della Ceramica", whose production represents the main example of experimentation in Tuscany and in Italy for the development of decorative arts. The artistic director of this factory is Galileo Chini, who understands very quickly the precepts of the new aesthetics, already asserted in the most part of Europe. At the "Esposizione di Torino" (Exhibition in Turin) in 1898 the production of "Arte della Ceramica" obtains an incredible success, dominating for its modern style. To the undertake, initially founded by Galileo Chini, Vittorio Giunti, Giovanni Montelatici and Giovanni Vannuzzi, then added some other members of the Chini family: Chino, Guido and Augusto. The stormy events of this undertake, already well known, led both Galileo and Chino to leave their activities in the factory. But in 1906 they create, together with Pietro Chini, brother of Chino, the ceramics factory "Fornaci San Lorenzo", situated in Borgo San Lorenzo, in the mugello valley, from which this family takes its origins. In the name of this new undertake, which is located in the ex "tintoria" Tesi, the name of Chino does not appear, in fact as he was technical director of the factory "Arte della Ceramica" and so depository of manufacturing secrets, he would have had some troubles with the members of the old undertake. Galileo Chini, become a very famous artist, is the author of the first advertising for the manufactures of Fornaci San Lorenzo; during the "Esposizione di Milano" (Exhibition of Milan) in 1906, where he introduces his works as a painter, he understands the importance to let know the manufactures of the new factory. For this occasion, he does not choose an official presentation in a stand (probably due to economical reasons) and in a letter dated 23rd of April 1906 he writes to Chino: "Caro Chino, stamane sono ripartito per Milano. Spero che tu sarai a manopolare i vasetti e che tu divida le idee mie ricevute in una lettera e cartolina che ti spedii costà. Allora siamo d'accordo! tu spedisci a me presso la Segreteria Belle Arti Esposizione Milano - Ricordati delle sigle esse sono la cosa che almeno io credo più importante di tutto." (Galileo writes to Chino that he has left again to Milan. He hopes that Chino is working with the manufactures and that he agrees with the ideas Galileo had and which were sent by letter to Chino. Furthermore Galileo asks Chino to send something by the Segreteria Belle Arti Esposizione Milano and especially he marks the "sigle" - initials, abbreviation of the new factory - which are thought to be the most important thing).
As it is concerned with the initials of this new factory, we should say that the distinguishing mark chosen for it represents a stylized grating, to remind the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, patron saint of Borgo San Lorenzo; this grating is accompanied by a small stylized lily. In the production of Mugello, generally ideated by Galileo continuously until 1911, the floral models of naturalistic type (normally present in the models of "Arte della Ceramica") are abandoned, in this period more stylized modules, often influenced by the "Secessione Viennese" , are taken into account: in this way it has been possible to obtain some manufactures representing a significant anticipation of Déco style.
As it is concerned with the chromatic tones, it is important to notice that the delicate colors, typical of the "Arte della Ceramica", disappear and they are replaced by more resolute colors, such as: blue, red, green and ochre. These colors are, more or less, the same, used by Galileo to realize his frescoes, and they are also livened up by covering them with metallic "lustri". This technique is widely used by Fornaci San Lorenzo and it becomes a main element of its production. Many types of "lustro" are used, such as: gold, silver, ruby; the latter is probably the most used.
As it is concerned with the materials, it is important to notice that the grès had a dominating position. This material was already used in the "Arte della Ceramica", the grey type, and decorated, generally, with blue cobalt on a naturalistic background. The manufactures made with grès, as well as for the ones made with majolica, represent a wide range, which is characterized by very linear structure and decorative solutions based on very stylized and geometrical models.
The decorative range is generally represented by slender gazelles, by belts with geometrical forms or by small palms; normally the decoration does not interest the entire surface of the manufacture: the decoration represents only a portion of the manufacture and the background maintains its natural color. In fact the manufactures made with grès have normally a transparent gloss-paint covering and very rarely the metallic "lustro" is applied.

Besides the potteries, the Fornaci San Lorenzo, were also involved in the production of glass-doors; this production was sustained by Chino, who made some attempts in this sector since some years. The glass produced by the Fornaci San Lorenzo (this production won the second prize during the contest for stained glass-doors realized for the church of San Paolo fuori le mura of Rome in 1908) is influenced, even its high quality, by a great difficulty in liberating from the traditional models, according to a trend very common to the entire Florentine production of glass-doors.
The first great success is reached by the production realized for the "Esposizione Torricelliana" of Faenza in 1908: even in this occasion the manufactures of Chini are at the same level of quality of the most important international productions. The joy for this success also involves the inhabitants of Borgo San Lorenzo as it is possible to understand from a telegram sent to Chini by the marchioness and marquis Teresa and Gerino Gerini, the 1st of December 1908: "Il loro pensiero gentile ci giunge graditissimo e mentre inviamo sentiti ringraziamenti ci congratuliamo di cuore meritati festeggiamenti loro tributati da compaesani". It is probably due to the fact that Chini obtained many prizes, that the marchioness Teresa Gerini started to invest some capitals in the factory of Chini, becoming one of the member. So in 1909 the "Società Fornaci San Lorenzo Chini & Co. is established. The factory had a period of big notoriety, since the first years of its establishment. After the success of Faenza in 1908, the factory obtains some other prizes such as the Grand Prix and the golden medal both at the Exhibition of Bruxelles in 1910 and at the Exhibition of Turin in 1911.
In 1911 the Fornaci co-operate with the architect Ugo Giusti for the decoration for the Pavilion of Tuscany at the International Exhibition of Art in Rome, and it carries out the glass-doors and a grès floor for the Pavilion, similar to the one in the Cathedral of Pisa. In 1911 Galileo Chini leaves Borgo San Lorenzo to go to Siam to make frescos for the Palazzo del Trono in Bangkok, leaving, but only temporarly, the artistic direction of the factory. Galileo allows the factory to obtain the contract for the ceramic covering of the Palazzo del Trono, but this order can not be accepted by the factory due to a serious disease of Chino.
But the factory will carry out another involving work: the covering in ceramic grès of the thermal establishment "Lorenzo Berzieri" of Salsomaggiore. The building was ideated by Ugo Giusti, before the beginning of the First World War, and it was ended in 1923. The rich ceramic decoration, whose realization sees the co-operation of the sculptures Guido Calori and Aristide Aloisi, covers almost the entire building and the decoration integrates perfectly with the monumental architectural structure. Galileo (who made the frescos of the main stairs' walls) probably transmitted to Guidi some influences of the eastern style assimilated during his stay in Siam from 1911 to 1914. The decoration of this building means a great involving work for the Chini factory, so that the ovens have to be widened and the entire structure of the factory is employed for the realization of this big work; the lathe production is stopped in order to give more space to the molding of the various kinds of covering for the Terme Berzieri. For this reason at the Exhibition of Pesaro in 1924, the Fornaci San Lorenzo introduces an entirely mould-die production. The restoration of manufactures made with lathe happens for the Exhibition of Paris and Monza in 1925, by purchasing the building of the factory (ex factory) Florentia Ars, situated in Firenze in Via Bernardo Tanucci. In the chronicles related to these exhibitions it is possible to note that: "La produzione del 1925 presentata quest'anno a Monza ed a parigi accanto ai tipi divenuti ormai tradizionali segna un risorgimento notevole nella famosa fabbrica toscana che negli ultimi anni s'era appartata dalle esposizioni, occupata dalla decorazione sontuosa delle terme di Salsomaggiore. Pezzi bellissimi espone Galileo Chini specialmente nei grès e nelle maioliche a gran fuoco: il gusto della decorazione s'è mantenuto austero, con quel disegno netto, con quella colorazione sobria che conoscevamo. Ma i motivi si sono arricchiti. La tecnica s'è fatta più matura ed ardita, le vernici hanno assunto smalti ed iridi preziosi." (This is a chronicle of 1925 related to the participation of the Fornaci San Lorenzo to the Exhibition of Monza and Paris: Galileo introduces very beautiful manufactures - especially grès and majolica - thanks to the decorative style, the clear drawings, the sober colors and a more mature technique).
After the Exhibition of Paris Galileo leaves the artistic direction of the factory, which is taken by Tito, son of Chino. It is quite a long time that Tito co-operates with the factory and even if he is influenced by the work of Galileo (the glass-doors of the Hotel Roma in Firenze are a significant example), he tries to renew the models and forms of the manufactures of Fornaci. It is important to notice the decorative solutions based on geometrical divisions with vivid polychromy, or some manufactures whose decorations are characterized by great formal simplifications, which show a certain attention to the pottery of Gio Ponti, especially in the painting of the human figure. In the factory there are two other sons of Chini: Elio and Augusto. Elio is chemist, so that he works on the technical aspects of the factory, while Augusto is sculpturer and he works, especially, on the modeling.
We do not have enough documentation concernign the activity of the sons of Chino in the factory, so that it is not possible to talk about their works inside the factory. We have some news from the chronicles of vain exhibitions, like the one of Anversa in 1930, where Augusto carries out the decoration for the portal of the Pavilion of Colonie, while Tito decorates the cupola for the Italian Pavilion, which was designed by the engineer Chevalley from Turin. We do not have any traces of these works, as for the most part of the preparations for exhibitions, because the pavilions were destroyed when the exhibition ended.
Also the ceramic panels for the thermal building of Castrocaro, due to the work of Tito at the end of 1930, have not received yet particular attention, but this work, which can be defined the last great work of the Fornaci San Lorenzo, would deserve a deeper study.
The study we have presented here, made by recording some manufactures found in the territory of Borgo San Lorenzo, is surely a significant tribute to reconstruct the activity of Fornaci between the two world wars; the sons of Chino have had a significant role in the factory during this period.
The factory had a crisis around 1936, due to a slackening in the production of architectural decoration materials, probably caused to a change in people taste, but after this crisis the activity goes on continuously until 1943, when it was bombed. Chino notes down this terrible event, which beats him heavily after two serious losses: the death of his son Elio in 1942 and the death of his wife Teresa the 26th of August 1943: " Il 30 Dicembre 1943 a ore 12.40. Incursione su Borgo San Lorenzo. Ha colpito la zona a nord del Paese recando molti danni a fabbricati e tantissime vittime. Per vero miracolo io, mia figlia Lina, mio figlio Augusto, mia nuora aurelia e le sue due bambine riccarda e Anna Rosa siamo rimasti salvi. Per la grazia ricevuta rimarremo in ogni giorno della vita, che vorrà ancora concederci, vivamente riconoscenti al miracolo del S.S. Crocifisso di Borgo San Lorenzo. E' rimasta offesa La casa di abitazione nel Viale IV Novembre e la Manifattura da me creata, e tutto frutto del Lavoro che Iddio mi ha permesso fare e che ora mi ha tolto. Sia fatta intera la Sua Volontà Amen. Chino Chini." (In this note Chino Chini talks about the raid on Borgo San Lorenzo happened the 30th of December 1943 at 12.40 a.m.. This raid destroyed many houses and killed many people, and within the houses destroyed there were the house of Chini and the factory; fortunately nothing happened to Chino Chini, his daughter Lina, his son Augusto, his daughter-in-law Aurelia and his two nieces Riccarda and Anna Rosa).
In another note dated 1944, Chino Chini writes down about the events following the destroy of the factory, when many things (the ones which could be saved) were transfered to Villa Pecori Giraldi:
"La sera del 29 Settembre ho portato al Convento delle R.R. Madri quanto era rimasto di sopravvissuto a Villa Pecori Giraldi e vi sono rimasto anche io con P. Labardi e con vitto e alloggio. Vi è poi in seguito trasportato anche quanto è rimasto della Produzione di Fabbrica." (The 29th of September in the evening Chino Chini brought to the convent of R.R. Madri the things which had been transferred to Villa Pecori Giraldi after the raid of Borgo San Lorenzo, previously mentioned; Chino Chini found lodging and food in the convent and he stopped there together with P. Labardi).
After these terrible events the Fornaci San Lorenzo are not able to start again a regular activity, because of the lacking of funds. Even the agreements that Tito tries to reach to establish a factory in Milan are not successful, because Tito dies in 1947. Even the activity is stopped, the factory represents, in the mind of Chino, a recurring thought until his death. In fact he notes down the 14th of January 1953: "Stanco di riordinare tante carte che dopo! anderanno al fuoco, e che ho tenuto quale memoria della mia attività, svolta con l'aiuto della Divina Provvidenza e per La Famiglia, per il mio Paese nativo e per l'Italia perché rimanga a ricordo ai miei cari nipoti." (Chino says that is tired to reorganize so many documents that will be, in a future, probably destroyed; he adds that he has written so many notes as a memory of his activity, which has been carried out with the help of the providence for his family, for Borgo San Lorenzo and for Italy, these notes will represent a souvenir for his nephews).

Text written By Gilda Cefariello Grosso for the City Hall of Borgo San Lorenzo
Translated by Gianna Toni


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