When I first learned the Italian word for "tile" --"mattonella"-- it seemed to me to be an enchanting
name for a woman. After all, it resembles closely the name "Antonella," a lovely diminutive and a
good name in every respect. "Mattonella," too, is a diminutive, but it means "little brick," so I now
see that as a term of endearment it can't hold a kiln to "sweetheart" or even "my little chickadee".
Onward. We needed new "little bricks"--lots of them--for our kitchen and bathroom floors and
walls. I suggested that we get Donato Massa to do the job. He, of course, was the master who
crafted the world-famous majolica tiles within the courtyard of Santa Chiara in Naples
, the fine
ceramic vases in the Hospital for the Incurable
, and the ceramics in the monastery in Padula
is even a national ceramic competition named for him. He is Mister Tile, if you get my drift. My
wife reminded me that if Donato is indeed still with us, then he is 300 years old if he's a day and the
old geezer might not welcome the five-flight hike up to our humble digs. I then suggested linoleum,
straw, or compressed moose chips as aesthetically pleasing alternatives. Sigh. No luck there, either.
I was thus shanghai'd to stalk the wild tile--to hunt up, track down, and mull over various styles of
tiles. Miles of styles of tiles. Piles of... (OK. I'll stop.)
In my defense, I don't know why computer graphic programs give you "millions of colors"; it seems
to me that most of us could get by with a hundred thousand or so. Also, the familiar schoolroom
mnemonic, "Roy G. Biv," to help you remember the colors of the rainbow, in order, as red, orange,
yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, doesn't mean much to me. As far as I'm concerned, that
helpful fellow's name might as well be "Rob B. Bbb." I don't know the difference in Italian between
"blu", "azzurro", and "celeste". To me, it's blue, kind of blue, and somewhere between almost blue
and bluish. Forget cobalt and cerulean. Who am I, Anders Ångström?
Tiles come in ceramic, concrete, metal, resin-based fakes, marble and many other minerals and
vegetables. In Naples, the 1700s stand out as the high point in the art of the beautifully colored
glazed ceramic pottery and tile known as Majolica (from the name of the island of Mallorca). Today
there is a thriving industry to provide new homes and refurbished old homes with square meters of
the stuff for bathrooms and kitchens. Depending on durability (important for floors) and how much
ornateness you want painted onto your little slabs of baked hydrous aluminum silicates, even mass-
produced tiles can run from about 10 to 90 euros per square meter (that latter price is almost $40 per
sq. foot (!) at the current rate of exchange) and well beyond that for unique art. Some manufacturers
such as those from the Capodimonte workshops in Naples or the town of Vietri on the Amalfi coast
or from the island of Sardinia have fine reputations going back centuries; thus, their products are
expensive. Incidentally, a slab of industrial tile is very heavy and will hurt if you drop it on your
We went to a place in nearby Pozzuoli called The Wiles of Tiles (sorry), where their motto is, "Buy
our tiles or we will drop another one on you." The worst display they had was a wall of itsy-bitsy
squares, a checkerboard pattern with no two adjacent squares of the same color. It reminded me of
the famous topology problem about the fewest colors required to make a map of the world with no
contiguous countries having the same color. (I don't know the answer. Try blue.) Or before war
breaks out between your rod and cone cells. Or the test you take in the army to see if you're color
blind. If you could pick out the number from the colors, you were fine. I kept seeing "666". I got a
Thus, we now have tiles. My input was concise and helpful. Those familiar with Jewish and Italian
families will no doubt recognize this kind of conversation:
"This is tile 1, and this is tile 2. Which one do you like?"
"I like number 2."
"What's wrong with number 1?"