The black pottery of Bisalhães, protected by UNESCO but disappearing.
The manufacturing process of the black pottery of Bisalhães is inscribed on UNESCO's List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
★ In search of the black pottery of Bisalhães
To go to Bisalhães, you must first reach the city of Vila Real in Northern Portugal in the ancient region of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, about 100 kilometres away from Porto, not very far from the Spanish border.
Once in Vila Real, the best thing to do is to join Avenida da Noruega. You will see there the 4 or 5 permanent display stands set up by the municipality and meet the potters who exhibit their work there. Then ask them to point you to the way to Bisalhães, which is about ten kilometers away.
Bisalhães is a remote small village as there are still some in Portugal. To tell the truth, the world village is inappropriate, it is better to speak of a hamlet with a few houses. No inhabitant in sight, just a few stray dogs, a single winding street, a few paths and around one of them, a large black stain on the ground and a few stones testify to the existence of a "soenga", a clay oven typical of the Bisalhães process. In fact, it is a community-based oven, simply dug into the ground and shared by the 5 potters who remain the sole holders of the black pottery manufacturing secrets.
However, since the 16th century, this village has been known as the "Land of Pot and pans producers". The pottery manufacturing processes that have been used there for more than 5 centuries are unique and are now only mastered by 5 potters. This is why Vila Real, the nearest city, expressed concerns and asked UNESCO to include this process on the list of te Worldwide Intangible Cultural Heritage.
★ The manufacturing process of black pottery
Old manufacturing methods are still used today to create pieces resembling those of the past. The process has remained unchanged for 5 centuries
1st step: A laborious and tiring work: the clay is crushed with a wooden hammer in a stone tank in order to make it as thin as possible.
2nd step: The clay is then sifted, manually in order to remove impurities and pieces that would harm the solidity of the parts made.
3rd step: The clay is moistened and kneaded in order to form a large ball ready to be turned.
4th step: The clay is shaped by slow turning. All the pieces are turned by hand. In fact, none of them is the same as the other: dimensions and shapes are quite uniques.
5th step: After drying, the piece obtained is traditionally polished with stones and decorated with a simple wooden stick.
6th step: The pieces are fired in ovens dug in the ground where pine needles, wood waste and moss are burnt. Then they are embedded in the black earth that will give each piece its final colour.
★ Sezinando Fernades Ramalho
Sezinando gets his technique from his father who stays at his side most of the time but who no longer practices pottery. He is one of the last 5 potters to master the art of black pottery in Bisalhães and is dedicated to defending its history, heritage, and technique.
He is currently trying to renew the style of the pieces he produces without making any concessions to his own technique. Thus, in collaboration with a young designer, he designed lampshades that will soon join one of Lisbon's trendy restaurants. He also agreed to adjust the size of some of these pieces at the request of a Japanese importer who will resell them at a high price.