Pepe Nero Clay Plaster by Matteo Brioni
The walls of the historic old part of Catania were covered in black clay plaster, a hypnotic anthracite black that was warm, mellow and rich with a range of shades that were revealed especially through cracks and peeling and which I followed with my phone as if they were rare butterflies to be snapped before they flew away.
Looking more closely at those timeworn features, you could tell that the walls of the buildings in the old centre weren’t actually painted: rather, the entire plaster was coloured, black on the surface and gradually more reddish in depth. This special tint was due to the sand with which natural clay plaster in the Catania area was historically made. Since ancient Roman times, mortar in this part of Sicily is not based on pozzolan, cocciopesto and lime putty, but on azolo, a particular lime with a volcanic origin created through the grinding of lava rocks from Mount Etna.
So we decided to organize an exploratory car journey to the sites around the slopes of the volcano where azolo comes from. Our trip took us across the incredible Zafferana plain and its desert of lava dust and we ended up looking out at the Acitrezza rock stacks, from where legend has it that Polyphemus threw gigantic lava boulders at Ulysses and which were then transformed into the Cyclopean Islands.
Getting out of the car at each new natural clay quarry, we inevitably found ourselves confronted with a row of amazed faces frozen in time, looking at us as if we were aliens just landed from another world. All around the landscape was dotted with sharp-edged black rocks, seductive and light like the sweet sugar charcoal that the Befana brings (the Epiphany witch), but much sharper.
By grinding the rock from different quarries, you get numerous versions of azolo, some more black/anthracite grey, others redder or more orange. The former usually derives from solidified lava or directly from the lapilli that emerged from the crater while the redder azolo comes instead from the lava flow that cooled as it flowed across the agricultural land, changing and mutating as it did so.