Sgraffito – Strange Name, Beautiful Technique

The word Sgraffito is the past participle of the Italian word Sgraffire, a word that means to scratch. The word goes back to describe the work done by pre15th century Italian potters, the technique itself goes much farther back. The word describes, in its pure form, redware pottery with decorations etched into a top layer…

The word Sgraffito is the past participle of the Italian word Sgraffire, a word that means to scratch. The word goes back to describe the work done by pre15th century Italian potters, the technique itself goes much farther back. The word describes, in its pure form, redware pottery with decorations etched into a top layer of white clay slip so that the color of the clay comes through. The practice has progressed with a variety of mediums, clays, and slips but still retains the basic technique of scratching off a surface to reveal the colors of what lie beneath.

It is believed that the sgraffito technique was first used during the Sung dynasty (960-1279) in China or by Islamic potters from Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Excavated work of both groups is almost indistinguishable and the question arises as to who influenced who. The Northern Italian potters copied the technique which was initially simply incised patterns. Over the next century the technique evolved into the use of stylized shapes to which was added additional coloring. At this point, this style of Sgraffito work became the standard in Italy.

Western Europe was also introduced to the Sgraffito technique from Persia and the Byzantium World. Trade from Italy during the Renaissance had a big impact in its spread. Potteries in the Netherlands produced sgraffito earthenware for use in the home. Much of the notable sgraffito work done in Europe, especially Germany was created in plaster rather that pottery ware.

Of collectable American pottery, redware pottery embellished with Sgraffito work is some of the rarest. The iron rich clay used is plentiful along the Atlantic Seaboard however early pottery was created for utility. The majority of the Sgraffito redware was produced in the Pennsylvania Dutch region of southeast Pennsylvania and in North Carolina. Decorative sgraffito for the home was popular in the period between 1810 and 1840 but was replaced by fashionable society for new trends around 1870.

An internet search of contemporary Sgraffito pottery turned up reference to the use of the technique in Southwest Traditional Pottery Production. Rosa Gonzales (1900-1989) of the San Ildefonso Pueblo is given credit for using the technique and bringing it into the repertoire of pottery styles used in her pueblo. It can also be seen incorporated into the work by individuals from several Southwest Pueblos.

As with all art forms, contemporary potters have fused practices of the past with the variety and wide availability of new products. Individuals use their knowledge, talent, and creativity to put their own stamp on their work wherever they stay true to tradition or fuse old technique with new. In contemporary pottery, Sgraffito work can be found as the singular means of decoration or part of a fusion of multiple decorative processes.