This story kicks off around a table at Catania’s Razmataz wine bar with a coffee, a gin and tonic (one of the many drunk with Lorenzo and Giuseppe) and a look at the city walls. Now this may be a professional failing, like tailors with fabrics but I often go up to walls and look closely at them, touch them and even smell them as if they were spices (friends make fun of me because when I go into a shop I often prefer to look at the walls instead of the goods on display).
The walls of the historic old part of Catania, which I took dozens of photos of, were covered in black 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 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 quarry (me tall and all dressed in black), 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.
When mixed with a special black clay from the Cagliari area these samples of different aggregates from the Lanzarote or Vulcano areas led to the creation of Pepe Nero: a highly material colour which allows you to reconsider plaster as a “surface/mass” that is very different in its visual, tactile and olfactory aspects from the two-dimensional surfaces of normally white painted plasters which are typical of modern architecture.
Produced only in authorized quarries and particularly from the residues of crushed commercial construction materials using an entirely eco-friendly process, the azolo sand is then cut with clays that infuse Pepe Nero with different grains, textures and shades of colour. The result is a variety of plasters capable of transmitting a warmth, a unique and comfortable domestic depth which lasts over time.
Since it was first produced in 2015, Pepe Nero has travelled around the world and become part of the shapes and histories of spaces and the people who live there. Its discovery could be likened to that of a carpenter who quite by chance, finds an unknown type of wood in the grain of a tree and which can be worked either as walnut or poplar. Azolo black also covers the entire interior of my studio in Gonzaga: sometimes when I look up at it, I am back sitting at the Razmataz with the phone in my hand and a colour in my eyes. And a new journey in mind.