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20.02.2019. Le Sirenuse
Closure is a relative concept at Le Sirenuse. Between November and the end of March, the hotel becomes a hive of activity as painters, carpenters, gardeners, furniture restorers and other artisans freshen, embellish and refurbish a hotel that needs to be ready for its close-up at the start of the season.
One important part of this is retiling, which takes place on a cyclical basis, with certain rooms and spaces being selected each year to have their traditional Amalfitano floor and bathroom tiles replaced. This winter, alongside a swathe of bedrooms, all the tiles on the large breakfast and pool terrace were replaced for the first time since the mid-1990s.
All Le Sirenuse’s replacement tiles are made by the firm of Fornace De Martino near Salerno. Belonging to father Tommaso and son Daniele De Martino, it’s a family business with ancient roots. The written record goes back to a contract from 1479, in which a certain Carlo De Martino promised to supply a thousand roof tiles to the aristocratic owner of Villa Rufolo in Ravello.
But the clay deposits around Rufoli di Ogliara, the village in the outskirts of Salerno where the company is based, have been worked since Roman times. You only have to look at the two kilns that the De Martinos use to fire their tiles and other ceramic wares to appreciate that this is a time-honoured trade. One dates from the tenth century, the other from the eleventh.
All tiles are hand-painted using natural pigments, mostly earths and oxides. There’s a great deal of technique not only in the steady hand and artistic bravura of the painters, but also in gauging how the colours will react when fired. The vivid hue known as verde rame, or copper green, is almost black when applied to the tiles, turning green in the heat of the kiln.
It takes almost two weeks to fire a batch of tiles – five days to heat the oven, two for the firing itself, and another five or six for the drying process. The tiles are arranged in tall stacks while they cool, so that their combined weight of prevents them from curling or warping.
It was the late Franco Sersale, father of Le Sirenuse’s current co-owner Antonio, who first reached out to De Martino to match and reproduce some of the antique tiles he had acquired on his travels. The colour matching is crucial, but no attempt is made to artificially ‘weather’ the tiles. “Signor Franco knew that you needed to wait for the old and new to blend”, says Daniele De Martino. “Time is the only thing that will give you a finish that is truly antico rather than fake antique”.