"This is how the Etruscans made their splendid vases." Interview with Roberto Paolini, a young ceramicist from Cerveteri

Roberto Paolini, owner of the Pithos workshop, is a young ceramicist from Cerveteri who specializes in reproducing ancient Etruscan pottery. We had him tell us about his work and the techniques by which the Etruscans made their splendid vessels.

Roberto Paolini is a young ceramist (born 1986) from Cerveteri, one of the main cities of the Etruscan dodecapolis. Always passionate about Etruscan art, which given his origins he has been able to know, study and love since childhood, Roberto approached the world of ceramics at the age of thirteen, first by attending the workshop of an expert ceramist from his fellow town, then beginning to produce on his own out of passion. Roberto’s passion later became his profession, and today he owns a business of reproductions of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman ceramics, which is called Pithos Ancient Reproductions (on the website www.pithosriproduzioniceramiche you can learn about his work, see his works, and ask for information) and which has its workshop right in Cerveteri, in the heart of Etruria. Roberto works for individuals who simply want to beautify their homes but also for museums that request reproductions for educational purposes (if you have visited an archaeological museum in the area and touched one of the reproduced ceramics, you may have come across one of Roberto’s works). We interviewed him to let him tell us the background of his work. The interview is edited by Ilaria Baratta, editor-in-chief of Finestre sull’Arte.

Roberto Paolini con una delle sue ceramiche
Roberto Paolini with one of his ceramics (a reproduction of the Franois Vase kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Florence)

IB. Let’s start from the place where you were born, Cerveteri, one of the main centers where the Etruscan civilization developed. How much did the fact that you were born there influence and how did you approach Etruscan art?
It influenced a lot, because since I was a child, being surrounded by everything that the Etruscans left us (the necropolis, the acropolis, the ceramics), every time I went for walks or visited these places, I was driven by curiosity to try to understand who had done all that: in short, it’s a passion that I cultivated since I was a child. Then as I grew up, starting to study the Etruscans in school since elementary school, seeing in books photographs of the works and burials that I used to see live in my areas, this curiosity grew more and more.

Did you also go to the Cerveteri Museum being fascinated by what was preserved there?
Yes, already when I was ten years old when I would go to the museum and see these beautiful vases, so brilliant, I wondered how it was possible that even so many years ago, with the knowledge they had at that time, with no electricity and no technological materials, there was someone who could make such complicated works of art. Basically, this continuous curiosity first sparked and then increased more and more this passion of mine for Etruscan art.

How did you approach the reproduction of Etruscan pottery at the age of thirteen? Did you do specific studies for this kind of profession?
I knew an older person who made reproductions and I started going to him, always out of pure curiosity. I used to spend whole afternoons with him, in his workshop, and observe the way he worked: it was, I repeat, still a passion, so in the meantime I was engaged in other activities (I studied as an accountant and did not follow paths that led me to study archaeology or similar subjects). The passion was so strong, though, that I often preferred to go to the workshop rather than go out with friends, and I remember standing there for hours and hours observing his technique, which really fascinated me tremendously. After a year of going to the workshop I too began to create my first objects, always with his help, and from that point it was a continuous growth: when I was eighteen I then began to create my first beautiful pieces, and from there I continued on my own way until today.

Roberto Paolini al lavoro sulle sue ceramiche
Roberto Paolini at work on his ceramics

Roberto Paolini al lavoro sulle sue ceramiche durante una rievocazione storica
Roberto Paolini at work on his ceramics during a historical re-enactment

So at some point you decided to create Pithos Ancient Reproductions. What prompted you to take this step, to make your passion a profession?
It’s true that it was a passion, but it soon began to become a kind of after-work activity, which took up many hours after the workday: I often found myself going to the workshop at nine o’clock at night and staying there until three in the morning. To get the word out about my work I created a Facebook page and began to find that people were impressed by what I was doing. But the real spark went off one day when I reflected on what I was doing and decided that I should not live with regrets, but to do in life what I loved and love to do. Or at least, I was going to try. And if it didn’t work out, I was going to go back to what I was doing. That was the moment when I left my old job and decided to be a potter and ceramographer.

A brave choice!
Yes, very brave. But I had gotten to the point where I had been pursuing this passion for about sixteen years, and I could no longer do it carefully enough, because the potter’s is a kind of work that needs a lot of concentration, and you need to be empty-headed when you use the workshop: these are special techniques and there is no possibility of making mistakes, when you make a vase you cannot correct a mistake. When I began to see that I was no longer getting what I wanted on the work then I said to myself that this was no longer good enough, and after a lot of trial and error I decided to quit my job and continue with ceramics.

Let’s take a closer look at the techniques: what are the processes through which ceramic reproductions are made?
Most Greek and Etruscan vases are made with two techniques: black figure and red figure. Let’s start with the assumption that all the materials I use are derived naturally: there is nothing bought or synthetic (for example, I make my own paints using special earths, and even the brushes I make myself with animal bristles or hare whiskers depending on the technique to be used). The black figure, which is the older of the two, involves creating a sketch of the scene on the vase and painting the inside of the characters. Then, once the paint has dried, you go and scratch all the internal and anatomical parts, the details of the character, so that after firing everything that has been painted will turn black and everything that has been scratched will take on the color of the crock, the red background, and stand out. This is a technique that was used extensively in Athens, although it originated in Corinth and was later introduced in Athens, which became the top producer of pottery. Once the painters reached the pinnacle on this technique, they began to feel the need to adopt something new, to look for novel stimuli also to boost trade, so they began to develop the red-figure technique. One of the first painters who developed this technique was the painter of Andocides: there are many vases made by him that have a black-figure scene on one side and a red-figure scene on the other side, they are called bilingual vases. The red-figure technique is much more complex because you don’t need to use a needle that goes into scratching, but you need very fine brushes made from the whiskers of hares. With such fine brushes you have the ability to make details that even in pencil or detail you cannot make, because they are really minute (from the characters’ teeth to the iris of the eye). It is very, very painstaking work, precision and patience. But with this technique the artists began to give much more perspective to the characters, much more movement, and they began to delineate anatomies and muscles much better.

Riproduzioni di ceramiche a figure nere create da Roberto Paolini
Reproductions of black-figure ceramics created by Roberto Paolini

Riproduzioni di ceramiche a figure rosse create da Roberto Paolini
Reproductions of red-figure ceramics created by Roberto Paolini

Are the reproductions you make replicas of museum artifacts or do you also draw inspiration from objects from other sources?
It depends, I usually follow what the customer orders. If the customer likes a vase that is on display in any museum and wants a reproduction, I within the limits of what is possible make the reproduction of the vase requested. Others, on the other hand, ask for vases of my own invention, perhaps providing directions on the mythological scene to be executed, and in that case I think of a mythological scene. Basically I try to please all the clientele.

In 2018 you also approached the world of historical reenactment. How did you approach this environment and how do you entertain audiences at these events?
Through the Facebook page I was contacted by several reenactors. At first I was not very passionate about it because I had no knowledge of this world. However, later I began to make friends with these people who would order me pottery that they would then use in reenactments: Greek, Etruscan or Roman reenactors would order me pots that they would then use during their events. I started going to see them at reenactments, and then I already had friends who were doing historical reenactments, so I also, for fun, started to get involved in this activity. To this day, I still get summoned by the various associations that organize events and they often let me participate in person as well: usually, depending on the type of reenactment or the period it refers to, I bring the material for that era. Recently, for example, in a reenactment in Otricoli I played the role of the potter’s merchant of that era: I show people who come to the reenactment how these objects were made.

And do you also teach your techniques?
Not yet, I don’t teach. But later on it might be... !