A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XI." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 162-166.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 162] 



MANUAL labour is distinguished from manual gymnastics by the fact that the object of the latter is to exercise the hand, and the former, to accomplish a determinate work, being, or simulating, a socially useful object. The one perfects the individual, the other enriches the world; the two things are, however, connected because, in general, only one who has perfected his own hand can produce a useful product.

I have thought wise, after a short trial, to exclude completely Froebel's exercises, because weaving and sewing on cardboard are ill adapted to the physiological state of the child's visual organs where the powers of the accommodation of the eye have not yet reached complete development; hence, these exercises cause an effort of the organ which may have a fatal influence on the development of the sight. The other little exercises of Froebel, such as the foldingof paper, are exercises of the hand, not work.

There is still left plastic work,–the most rational among all the exercises of Froebel,–which consists in making the child reproduce determinate objects in clay.

In consideration, however, of the system of liberty which I proposed, I did not like to make the children copy anything, and, in giving them clay to fashion in their own manner, I did not direct the children to produce useful things; nor was I accomplishing an educative result, inas- [Page 163]  much as plastic work, as I shall show later, serves for the study of the psychic individuality of the child in his spontaneous manifestations, but not for his education.

I decided therefore to try in the "Children's Houses" some very interesting exercises which I had seen accomplisbed by an artist, Professor Randone, in the "School of Educative Art" founded by him. This school had its origin along with the society for young people, called Giovinezza Gentile, both school and society having the object of educating youth in gentleness towards their surroundings–that is, in respect for objects, buildings, monuments: a really important part of civil education, and one which interested me particularly on account of the "Children's Houses," since that institution has, as its fundamental aim, to teach precisely this respect for the walls, for the house, for the surroundings.

Very suitably, Professor Randone had decided that the society of Giovinezza Gentile could not be based upon sterile theoretical preachings of the principles of citizenship, or upon moral pledges taken by the children; but that it must proceed from an artistic education which should lead the youth to appreciate and love, and consequently respect, objects and especially monuments and historic buildings. Thus the "School of Educative Art" was inspired by a broad artistic conception including the reproduction of objects which are commonly met in the surroundings; the history and pre-history of their production, and the illustration of the principal civic monuments which, in Rome, are in large measure composed of archæological monuments. In order the more directly to accomplish his object, Professor Randone founded his admirable school in an opening in one of the most artistic parts of the walls of Rome, namely, the wall of Belisarius, [Page 164]  overlooking the Villa Umberto Primo–a wall which has been entirely neglected by the authorities and by no means respected by the citizens, and upon which Randone lavished care, decorating it with graceful hanging gardens on the outside, and locating within it the School of Art which was to shape the Giovinezza Gentile.

Here Randone has tried, very fittingly, to rebuild and revive a form of art which was once the glory of Italy and of Florence–the potter's art, that is, the art of constructing vases.

The archæological, historical, and artistic importance of the vase is very great, and may be compared with the numismatic art. In fact the first object of which humanity felt the need was the vase, which came into being with the utilisation of fire, and before the discovery of the production of fire. Indeed the first food of mankind was cooked in a vase.

One of the things most important, ethnically, in judging the civilisation of a primitive people is the grade of perfection attained in pottery; in fact, the vase for domestic life and the axe for social life are the first sacred symbols which we find in the prehistoric epoch, and are the religious symbols connected with the temples of the gods and with the cult of the dead. Even to-day, religious cults have sacred vases in their Sancta Sanctorum.

People who have progressed in civilisation show their feeling for art and their æsthetic feeling also in vases which are multiplied in almost infinite form, as we see in Egyptian, Etruscan, and Greek art.

The vase then comes into being, attains perfection, and is multiplied in its uses and its forms, in the course of human civilisation; and the history of the vase follows the history of humanity itself. Besides the civil [Page 165]  and moral importance of the vase, we have another and practical one, its literal adaptability to every modification of form, and its susceptibility to the most diverse ornamentation; in this, it gives free scope to the individual genius of the artist.

Thus, when once the handicraft leading to the construction of vases has been learned (and this is the part of the progress in the work, learned from the direct and graduated instruction of the teacher), anyone can modify it according to the inspiration of his own æsthetic taste and this is the artistic, individual part of the work. Besides this, in Randone's school the use of the potter's wheel is taught, and also the composition of the mixture for the bath of majolica ware, and baking the pieces in the furnace, stages of manual labour which contain an industrial culture.

Another work in the School of Educative Art is the manufacture of diminutive bricks, and their baking in the furnace, and the construction of diminutive walls built by the same processes which the masons use in the construction of houses, the bricks being joined by means of mortar handled with a trowel. After the simple construction of the wall,–which is very amusing for the children who build it, placing brick on brick, superimposing row on row,–the children pass to the construction of real houses,– first, resting on the ground, and, then, really constructed with foundations, after a previous excavation of large holes in the ground by means of little hoes and shovels. These little houses have openings corresponding to windows and doors, and are variously ornamented in their facades by little tiles of bright and multi-coloured majolica: the tiles themselves being manufactured by the children. [Page 166] 

Thus the children learn to appreciate the objects and constructions which surround them, while a real manual and artistic labour gives them profitable exercise.

Such is the manual training which I have adopted in the "Children's Houses"; after two or three lessons the little pupils are already enthusiastic about the construction of vases, and they preserve very carefully their own products, in which they take pride. With their plastic art they then model little objects, eggs or fruits, with which they themselves fill the vases. One of the first undertakings is the simple vase of red clay filled with eggs of white clay; then comes the modelling of the vase with one or more spouts, of the narrow-mouthed vase, of the vase with a handle, of that with two or three handles, of the tripod, of the amphora.

For children of the age of five or six, the work of the potter's wheel begins. But what most delights the children is the work of building a wall with little bricks, and seeing a little house, the fruit of their own hands, rise in the vicinity of the ground in which are growing plants, also cultivated by them. Thus the age of childhood epitomises the principal primitive labours of humanity, when the human race, changing from the nomadic to the stable condition, demanded of the earth its fruit, built itself shelter, and devised vases to cook the foods yielded by the fertile earth.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Anna Haynes.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom