The small town of Argentona does not feature in our Lonely Planet guide, and we only came across it while doing an internet search for potteries in the region. It’s another one of those ‘stumbled across’ destinations that we were lucky to find. What drew our attention to the place was its Museu del Cantir, or Jugs. This seemed a slightly unusual thing on which to base an entire museum, so it was definitely worth further investigation.
Located northish of Barcelona, and northwest of Mataro, Argentona is a small, and on first impressions, fairly undistinguished sort of place. Like many small Spanish towns it is not ideally suited to larger vehicles, particularly in the ‘historic centres’ where the twisty streets are often alarmingly narrow and the locals keen for you to move it along! We do our best to avoid difficult situations, but every now and then by accident or necessity we end up having to go through the middle of a town, and this was one such case. By the time we had navigated our way into the older part we were feeling slightly stressed and were on the verge of giving the museum a miss. But then we managed to extricate ourselves from the one way system and found a parking spot along a tree lined street not too far from where we thought it was.
Finding the museum turned out to be straight forward, although we had to do so quite quickly as it was already 11.30am. To our cost we have found that many galleries and museums close for an extended lunch break, any time from 12.30pm on, and may not open again until as late as 4.00pm. This can wreak havoc with travel plans!
In a building that had the feel of an old school, the museum shares a small square with a number of what appeared to be 18thC buildings and a church that looked far older. As advertised the museum is devoted to the history of water vessels, has more than 3000 items in its collection, with 700 on display. Even if you are not an ardent enthusiast there is enough variety to meet a general interest. A majority of the ‘jugs’ are ceramic, but there are others made from a variety of materials including glass, metal, wood and leather.
And why exactly should there be a museum dedicated to jugs in Argentona? Well, the event that led to this town becoming a center for the making of ceramics of this type occurred during the XVII century when the region of Catalonia was in the grip of an outbreak of the plague. The village took a collective ‘vow’ imploring the aid of St Dominic. I’m a little unclear about exactly what happened next, as the language barrier got in the way, so don’t hold me to this…but what I think the museum guide was trying to explain was that in taking this vow the waters from the village spring were blessed, and by drinking the water the villagers were saved from the pestilence...hence the symbolism of the ‘cantir’ or jug.
In celebration of this event, August 4th was set aside as an official feast day to honour the Saint. Over the years The Feast of Saint Dominic became Argentona’s major festival, although the significance of the cantir faded. But in 1951 a Water Jug Festival was added to the Saints day celebrations by a group of enthusiasts rekindling the significance of this particular type of pottery. Every year the Water Jug Museum organises the International Ceramic and Pottery Festival to promote traditional forms of pottery and to explore new directions. The festival is now a major event, and attracts interest from all over Europe as well as further afield.
A short video contextualised the collection, pointing out the practical and cultural significance of water and water containers, and how different societies through the ages have addressed the need to store and transport this precious commodity. The collection is displayed more or less chronologically so the way in which some types have evolved and become more refined can be seen. Although there are a good number of utilitarian containers on display, a large majority go well beyond just being a pragmatic solution to a problem.
The ways in which materials are used, combined and crafted show diverse sensitivities to form and finish. Some are quirky, eccentric shapes driven more by decorative or humorous intentions, while others are elegantly simple shapes. A good jug pours well and once this requirement has been met, the maker is free to embellish and add value in many ways. Something as ubiquitous as a jug, something that has an unavoidable presence in the home, should be a pleasure to have around. The collection thoroughly charts the efforts made over the years by various craftspeople to create water containers that will both please and serve.
There are four jugs on display by Picasso who in association with a local manufacturer devoted a number of his later years to working with ceramics, largely it seems in the application of decoration rather than the forms themselves. If you are interested you can follow that up and see what you think. However, I’ll add the following extract from the novel by Sebastian Faulks (Engleby) which I coincidentally happened to be reading at the time and which amused me.
"Late work’. It’s just another way of saying feeble work. I hate it. Monet’s messy last water lilies, for instance – though I suppose his eyesight was shot. The Tempest only had about twelve good lines in it. Think about it. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Hardly Great Expectations is it? Or Matisse’s paper cut-outs, like something from the craft room at St B’s. Donne’s sermons. Picasso’s ceramics. Give me strength." - P.67
- Nick C