Italy has a habit of surprising you. It feels like every nook and corner has something amazing waiting for you to discover. And that’s never truer than in Puglia on Italy’s southeastern peninsular, where a treasure trove of true Italian art awaited us.
Of all the places we’ve been to, Italy has caused more ‘oh wows’ and ‘I wasn’t expecting thats’. Perhaps it’s because even the tiniest alleys and out-of-the-way piazzas are sometimes hiding the best stuff.
Or perhaps it’s thanks to the Italian version of function vs form, which is more of a collaboration than a competition.
Everything from the Coliseum to a well-made pizza conforms to the Italian mindset that for something to work, it also has to look good. And vice versa.
Italian designer and graphic designer Bruno Munari puts this concept more eloquently than my shoddy comparison:
There should be no such thing as art divorced from life; with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use.
And you want to know the best part?
This idea that beauty and functionality can co-exist is true! What we discovered in the little fishing town of Monopoli on Italy’s Adriatic coast is a living example of Munari’s clever words.
A word on Puglia and Monopoli
But if you’ve been to Puglia or just want to get straight to my point, click here.
Taking up the whole of the heel of Italy’s boot-shaped borders, the region of Puglia in the southeast is one of the world’s largest peninsulas (the 13th largest in fact), edging onto 4 different seas.
The region’s huge coastline, coupled with its proximity to Greece and Albania, means there are lots of influences on the culture, customs and language of the area.
Puglia (pronounced “pooleeya”) feels quite isolated from the rest of the country, though it’s only a 1-hour flight from Rome and only a 2.5-hour drive to Naples.
Most non-Italians have never heard if it, which makes Puglia the perfect destination for travellers who love Italy but want a ‘real’ Italian experience away from mass tourism.
Monopoli is a little fishing town just south of Bari, the region’s capital. We fell in love with this town more than we did the other places we visited in the region.
From its harbour and little city beach to the thriving piazza and typical narrow flagstone streets, Monopoli always looks the part. There’s a wealth of restaurants, bars, cafés and enotecas here too, so you’ll never go hungry or thirsty.
And best of all, the Italian culture of surprising and delighting its visitors with fascinating finds behind every wall is going strong in Monopoli – as we discovered one afternoon on our way home…
Giú in Lab = form + function = the best souvenir from Puglia
Having spent the afternoon enjoying the Pugliese sunshine and hospitality, we were walking home to freshen up for dinner. Almost at the front step of our apartment, we noticed the door next to ours was wide open.
We peered in.
Warmly lit amongst the pale brick and whitewash a glowing grotto welcomed us – figuratively and literally.
A voice inside called to us.
“Ciao! Come in! Come in!”
Architects Anna Dibello and Giambattista ‘Gianni’ Giannoccaro are owners and creators of Giú in Lab, and they’re welcoming us into their workshop.
Giú in Lab is the product of Anna and Gianni’s fascinating past as international architects and designers. They have turned their skills and knowledge to create ceramics than not only have beauty and function, but also spell out the traditions and culture of Puglia.
Using things like leaves, pomegranates and Italian lace to create unique patterns in their ceramic pots, cups, lamps and other artistically designed homewares, this remarkable couple craft everything here in their lab.
Their signature style is a ceramic version of the traditional baskets used to make fresh local cheese. “Le TerRicottine” is a play on terracotta and ricotta and Anna and Gianni make the most beautiful, textured bowls in every size and colour.
You might be wondering:
What are two such skilled, highly intelligent creative people doing tucked away in a little town few people have even heard of? And why are they making something that’s pretty niche?
Both Anna and Gianni are Pugliese locals. They were brought up here. And after a life spent everywhere else, they’ve come back to the fold; the place they know the best. The place that is part of them.
Now if that’s not something every traveller wants to buy into, I don’t know what is.
Via Cavaliere, 32
Feel like you want to read that bit you skipped earlier about Puglia and Monopoli? Click here and you’ll go straight back up!
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love our other articles about our time in Puglia. Click here to discover more.
Want to read more about Italy as a whole? Click here; we can help you with that too.
And a final word from our old mate Bruno Munari – who I only discovered thanks to Anna and Gianni:
“An object should be judged by whether it has a form consistent with its use.”