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Black Pottery Center With 200 Years History: Marginea, Romania

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Loading The Kiln For Firing Black Pottery

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Children’s merry voices echoed around as they got off the school bus. It was one of those end-of-school days, and where other should they celebrate the school year coming to a close, but at a ceramic workshop, gathered round the potter, asking questions, their curious little eyes watching how clay is turned into a cup, a glass, a house, anything they desire. The rare black pottery that have been made for centuries here, in Marginea, became known worldwide for its rarity, remarkable beauty and craftsmanship, placing Marginea among the top tourist attractions in Bukovina.

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This is the result of an ancient burning technique that has been pursued for centuries here, in Marginea, their skill in making black pottery being one of the most well-known talents of the people from Marginea.

Descending from a family involved in black ceramic making since the 19th century, Corneliu Magopăţ is a fifth generation potter.

Romanian Potter Corneliu Magopat Working With Clay
Romanian ceramist Corneliu Magopăţ throwing a clay jug on potter’s wheel

“Our village once had sixty families of pottery makers. From sixty, we’re down to three families“, says 38 years old Corneliu Magopăţ, who follows the family tradition, continuing the craft practiced by his forefathers. Skills hold their value in the Magopăţ family. Descending from a family involved in pottery making since the 19th century, Corneliu Magopăţ is a fifth generation potter. “Our family has been making ceramics for five generations. It was passed down from father to son, and for more than two hundred years wasn’t lost.”, he says. 

Romanian Potter Corneliu Magopat Working With Clay

Women are in charge with decorating the objects. Potters are usually men, who learn the art from their older relatives. Corneliu’s parents were very insistent that he learned the craft and paid him for each object he made.

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“I’ve been working since I was seven years old, outside of school hours. My parents had observed my interest in ceramics and nurtured it. By the end of the working day, my mother would count the pieces I made and she paid me by the piece. Unlike many children of my age, I was making my own money and I really enjoyed it.”, he remembers.

How do they succeed passing on the unique heritage of black pottery making to the next generation?

Clay Pots Drying on Shelves
Ceramic pots drying on the shelf

Making ceramic is one of those evergreen crafts which can never become extinct. Carrying on the family trade is not only a badge of honour, but also involves the responsibility of passing it to the next generation.  Presently, he is training his two sons to continue their family legacy. “It’s been two years since my sons started making pottery during their summer vacation, because we must keep it alive. Each generation must leave a mark on it, and we are, at the moment, making brown ceramics, painted ceramics, carved ceramics, that we designed, and we hope that our successors will also bring in something new. “

Experience local culture through food in grandparents’ house serving traditional food in ceramic dishes and find authentic Romanian souvenirs at the shops nearby.

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After studies in International Economic Relations, Corneliu decided to take the next step and convert his grandparents’ house into a restaurant serving traditional food in ceramic dishes, the Potter’s House, located on the main street, right in front of the ceramic workshop. Recently restored, yet retaining its original structure, the little restaurant is a living piece of history.

The little house has been standing for over 100 years, so stepping inside feels like you are going back in time. It is beautifully decorated in a traditional style: floors and beams, dowry boxes, painting ceramic decorations, its walls decorated with a family collection of images. “The pictures on the walls are old, cherished pictures, that remind us of our ancestors. Grandmother, Ana, with two aunts of mine washing the pots after they took them out of the oven, grandfather Vasile, who opened the workshop in the seventies”, he describes, pointing out each picture with a nostalgic smile.

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There are two ceramic shops, one on the left side of the Potter’s House and one at a few steps behind, stuffed with delightful items to look at and to choose from, absolutely beautiful ceramics. Though much of the creation process and style of Marginea pottery is still the same today as it was during the Dacian period, new designs and patterns are continually developed.

“We are continuing to make traditional utilitarian pottery, that have been used since old times. The cabbage roll casserole – best to boil stuffed cabbage rolls. The clay retains heat much longer, the cabbage becomes tender. We make milk jugs, wine jugs, water jugs, soup bowls, traditional stone-decorated ceramics. In addition, we also make modern ceramic, because each generation of potters from our family had brought in something new. We are building our own tradition, bringing in new, contemporary designs. We consider it our responsibility to nurture this precious heritage in order to pass it on to future generations.

An open door ceramic workshop where you can watch black pottery being made.

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The most popular attraction is the open door ceramic workshop, where visitors can steep in the art of black pottery making and, perhaps, even take a few pottery lessons. Inside, the earthy aroma of fresh, moistened clay strikes you. It is like the smell of rain on dry soil.

His associate, Vasile Bodale, a very experienced potter is working on his wheel shaping a lump of clay into a wine jug. He does it so fast and with so much ease, that he makes it look quite simple, when, in fact, throwing takes years of learning.

Sitting at the kneading table, Corneliu’s brother-in-law and associate, Traian Leonte has just finished preparing his clay for pottery and is taking the lumps of clay to his potter’s wheel. As soon as he puts his wheel in motion he shapes a ceramic ball ceiling lamp. He takes a sculpting tool and starts carving holes in it, so that when in use, the cut design produces lovely subtle shapes on the wall around the fitting.

Thousands of pots are produced every year and their ability to throw such a variety of forms at such pace requires exceptional skill and understanding of the material.

When they are bone dry, the pots are taken to a backroom, where Maria and Maricica, the ladies responsible for the decoration will carefully inspect, wipe off, then burnish each pot with river stone. Designs seen on Marginea black pottery include simple linear and geometric patterns. Other patterns include floral motifs, animals, and birds. Afterwards, the pots are loaded inside a kiln for firing. 

The making of black pottery through reduction firing – an ancient process inherited from the Dacian civilization.

“Our kilns are built above the ground. The pots are loaded and unloaded through the entry above. Somebody gets inside and stacks them on the shelves.

Loading The Kiln For Firing Black Pottery
Loading the kiln

The kiln has three layers. Being arched shaped, small pieces are placed nearby the walls, then bigger wares, with tall pieces up to forty centimeters in the center. In the morning, we build the fire in the mouth of the oven, not in the corridors, then gradually add larger pieces to get deeper and raise the temperature slowly. The wood used is fir and constant stoking is required to keep the wood at consistently high temperatures. The wares will slowly heat up and won’t crack. They are gradually heated.”, explains Corneliu as he leads us into the backyard, where they are loading and preparing the kiln for firing.

The specific black color is obtained during the firing process, following an ancient burning technique, called reduction firing.

“The uniqueness of our ceramics is this: incomplete combustion and natural colour. The colour is neither applied before, nor after firing. It’s the reduced atmosphere firing method, inherited from our predecessors. In our village it has been practiced for over two hundred years. In eight hours, the temperature must rise up to 700 degrees C. It is very important that the temperature increases slowly.  When they reach the maximum temperature of 700 degrees C, the wares are incandescent, their pores are open. We restrict the flow of incoming air and seal the chimney, The black smoke enters the pots and thus gives them the black color.”, describes Corneliu.

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This old technique comes from the Dacian civilization. Before, the natural reddish-brown of the fired clay was commonly made. During the Dacian period, they came across black pottery while an underground oven broke.

“It collapsed, and when the potters came to open it, they stumbled upon ceramics of unusual black color, due to the incomplete burning process. Many people believe we use a special clay to obtain the black color. We point up that it’s the burning process that gives the final black color. While the kiln is sealed, the smoke gets into the surface of the clay and deeper, turning it entirely black.”, says Corneliu.

After it has cooled completely, the kiln is opened and unloaded in the same manner: somebody gets inside and carefully takes each pot out. The color change is remarkable: all the wares have changed their color into black. The ones that had been burnished come out with a glossy and reflective glass-like surface. Cornelius is carefully packing the orders for their online store, , while the rest of the items will be neatly arranged on shelves.

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