Croatian Traditions: Making Terra Cotta Pots
It was late July and it was hot. Hellishly hot. The thermometer in the boat’s cockpit threatened to reach 110 degrees and the large white canvas awning (in sailing jargon, a bimini), designed to shield us from the sun’s brazen force, didn’t begin to protect us from the day’s penetrating heat. To make matters worse, there was not a whisper of wind. In fact, the only hint of a breeze was the scarcely perceptible flow generated by Klatawa’s sluggish, motor driven passage through the mirror-like waters of the Kornati Islands. We felt lazy. We had little motivation. We didn’t know what we wanted to do or where we wanted to go.
This was not our first visit to the Kornatis. We had sailed through these islands several times and our images and impressions changed with each visit, each season, each day, and each hour. We were always fascinated and entertained by the changing angles of the sun on the limestone hills and cliffs. Shadows emerge, shift slowly and then disappear. Sharp, rocky angles soften into gentle curves. And this day, as we looked out upon these islands and islets, surrounded by the clear and brilliant blue sky and the deep crystal clean azure blue Adriatic Sea, it was easy to understand the inspiration behind George Bernard Shaw’s memorable words: “On the last day of the Creation, God desired to crown His work, and thus created the Kornati Islands out of tears, stars and the breath of the sea.”
But our thoughts remained inescapably focused on the heat and the possibility of relief from it. We thought about a cool swim and we thought about the pleasures provided by green shade trees. Suddenly, our cell phone rang. It was our good friends Darryl and Jean aboard Sheba Moon calling to invite us to the annual Iske Feste (Iz Festival) on the nearby island of Iz. They promised shade trees and they guaranteed new experiences at the traditional Croatian festival. We readily agreed and made plans to rendezvous at the Veli Iz marina, just 20 miles away.
Once we were securely moored in the harbor, I headed off for an exploratory hike on this island that is home to 300 full-time residents. The temperature this afternoon remained well above the 100-degree mark, and my intended brisk walk became a sluggish stroll. I wandered aimlessly for over an hour along the waterfront and up through the dusty, narrow and meandering roads of the small village. It seemed that these freshly whitewashed homes with their red tile roofs were built a few feet farther apart than those on the mainland and on most of the neighboring islands. Consequently, the front-yard kitchen gardens were slightly larger, boasting a few more well-tended grapevines, an extra row or two of juicy multihued tomatoes, mangold (a type of spinach), red and green peppers and glossy white and purple eggplants.
Toward the end of my walk, I found myself back at the water’s edge, wandering along a well-worn stone trail that headed toward a cluster of houses. At the foot of one narrow pathway that led up to the front entrance of one of these homes was a weathered driftwood sign that read “Iska Keramika.” It was just the sign I had hoped to discover. According to my guidebook, Iz is the only island in Dalmatia that has a history of pottery making. As an avid ceramics admirer, I was eager to learn more about this traditional craft. I returned to the boat, shared my enthusiasm, and quickly convinced Bill, Jean and Darryl to join me for a visit.
The front door to the potter’s studio stood wide-open. As we stepped across the threshold, the earthy aroma of damp clay surrounded us and a soft, deep male voice beckoned us with a friendly “dobar dan.” From deeper within the refreshingly cool, dark and cluttered space came another voice calling out “dobar dan.” This one was bright, cheerful and feminine. As our eyes slowly adjusted to the low light, we returned this standard Croatian greeting and introduced ourselves – then the short, slim and strong man dressed in clay-spattered shorts and T-shirt and seated at the manually operated potter’s wheel introduced himself and his wife: Predrag Petrovic — Pepi, for short and Jadranka Bukic-Petroviae (Jaki), the “store manager.”
A sense of welcome pervaded the centuries-old space that served as Pepi’s studio and pottery shop, now cluttered with jetsam and flotsam from the sea and pieces of ancient pottery. We sensed this couple’s respect for their culture, their craft and for their nation’s past. Thankfully, both Pepi and Jadranka spoke excellent English and we were soon exchanging stories. We chatted about our sailing experiences, our families, our hometowns, and we learned more about Pepi’s craft, about the island of Iz, about Croatia and about Pepi and Jadranka’s families.
Pepi spoke patiently about the history of pottery in Dalmatia and his personal interest and involvement with this ancient craft. He explained that both clay and sand are required to make pottery and that clay, suitable for making pottery, is rarely found in Dalmatia. Although there may be pockets of clay on other islands, no one in Dalmatia has ever made pots anywhere except on Iz. Furthermore, there is no sand on the island so local vrsta (calcite stone) must be ground manually. It did not take us long to realize that making Dalmatian pottery is hard and demanding work - but the rewards are functional and long lasting. Pots from Iz have been used throughout the Adriatic for centuries and Pepi, a schoolteacher by profession, was dedicated to studying and preserving the traditional methods and designs.
Much of our conversation focused on the steps required to create the traditional Iz terra cotta. First, the clay pots are gently air-dried indoors (sometimes for days or even weeks). Next they are set out for at least a few days in the blazing hot summer sun and finally they are fired in a traditional wood-fueled open-pit fire. To help prevent the vessels from shattering in the intense heat of this last phase (temperatures reach between 800 and 900 degrees Celsius), the heat is increased gradually. It is this extreme heat that triggers the chemical change that transforms the clay into terra cotta. Our visit to Iz was perfectly timed. Late today they would fire a batch of pots.
Armed with our cameras, we headed to the designated field where the “firing team” was beginning to toss clumps of hay and straw on top of the pots. Once all the pieces were evenly covered, the fuel was ignited. Slowly, more and more handfuls of fuel were added. This gentle fire had to be kept alive for 20 to 30 minutes.
After the clay was preheated, it was time for the serious firing to begin. Bunches of dried olive branches were piled upon the pots and the flames began to mount. The fast-burning fire was constantly hand-fed by what was now a four-member team. Our friend Pepi had appeared and was working front and center. The team watched closely as the wind, made stronger by the intense heat, started several runaway fires. Quickly, with buckets and sprinkling cans, the errant fires were extinguished. This extremely hot fire burned for about 10 minutes and then burned itself out.
As the last flames flickered, three team members reached for long cypress and acacia branches to brush away the ash that had accumulated in mounds on the rows of pottery. A nearby observer told us that these ashes must be cleared - otherwise they would form an unwanted layer of insulation over the pots. This firing process, using hot-burning olivewood, was repeated a second and a third time. After the third firing, success was declared. The clay pots had been transformed into terra cotta.