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Italian Majolica - From the Early Renaissance to the Present

by Mary Haberstroh

Italian majolica, or maiolica, originated in the last part of the fourteenth century until the present after Italy was introduced to this method of making pottery. It is believed that majolica itself came to Europe by the way of the Islamic conquest of North Africa and Spain from the Near East, through the Spanish port of Majorca, where the name majolica comes from. Pottery with a tin glaze was discovered as early as the ninth century of our common era in the Near East. The glaze would frequently be painted on, bearing calligraphy designs that were popular to Near Eastern culture. In Italy, the same procedure of applying the opaque tin glaze then firing it in a kiln would be done, then finished with a painted design. The first Italian majolica pieces had pictures of human and animal figures on them, which later evolved into the istoriato, or narrative painting style.

Metal based paints were used in decorating majolica in the late fourteenth century. Manganese provided a purple hue, while copper was used for green, cobalt for blue, antimony for yellow, and iron for orange. Silver oxides produced a pale yellow while copper oxides created a deep red color. These were the basic colors used in majolica, and fine brushes were used to apply the paints on the white glaze. Blue became the popular color to outline designs and figures until black paint was made from other oxides in the middle sixteenth century in Italy. Once the pottery was painted, it would be given a second firing in the kiln after being coated with a transparent layer of lead glaze called coperta to give the majolica a luster and preserve the painted colors.

Majolica was made throughout major parts of Italy but the best quality pieces were made in Tuscany, Florence, Faenza, and Deruta. By the late fifteenth century, Florence was the main center for majolica production. Painted designs on majolica ware were cupids, satyrs, dolphins, and palmettes, emulating Raphael's artistic style from sculpture. It was also at this time when pottery from China was brought over to Italy and the frequent blue and white designs were imitated in Italian majolica. With the opaque white tin glaze and the cobalt blue Chinese designs, majolica became desirable to own by many Italians for their beauty and simple colors. Additional early Italian Renaissance designs included busts, animals, scrolls, and arabesques that decorated many plate borders as well as vases.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Deruta, located in the central Italian region of Umbria, developed majolica to a high art form, creating decorated dishes that look like they could have adorned major European palaces. The majolica made at Deruta frequently had a luster that was created through the application of silver once the paint on the white glaze dried. The majolica was then fired in the kiln a second time, and once the pottery cooled, the silver would be wiped off, leaving a high iridescent finish to the majolica. Other towns soon followed this procedure of giving majolica a final iridescent finish, particularly Gubbio in Umbria. Majolica made in Gubbio had a golden ruby luster as a finished, from using copper in place of silver. Renaissance decorations adorned majolica made in Gubbio. Another city, Faenza, in the province of Ravenna that is located north of Umbria, also produced high quality majolica and it is the city's name that gives the majolica produced there the term faience. Faience has become a common term to describe any ceramics that have been glazed with a tin oxide added to lead although lead glazed pottery itself does not properly qualify as majolica. The town of Siena also manufactured majolica but not much is known about the early production. The town of Castel Durante in Urbino created largely portraits and scenes on their majolica, and one of the best artists who worked there was Nicolo Pellipario. He was considered to be the supreme master of istoriato painting, who based many of his paintings from original engravings. Nicolo originally worked in the Faenza tradition, using shades of blue but then transitioned to oranges and yellows. One dish he created around 1535 was called “The Finding of Moses”, which contains fine detail work in the building column, women's faces and robe folds.

From 1550 to 1800 Italian majolica became revolutionized through the types of designs painted on the ware. Abstract designs using lines came into use and the colors changed as well: gray-blue, brownish yellow or brownish orange, plum, and olive green were the paints used in majolica during this time period. Montelupo Fiorentino near Florence in Tuscany used leaf and fruit patterns in their majolica ware. Abruzzi near Naples was also a thriving majolica manufacturing center during this time period. For a brief period in 1650 the istoriato style was revived, using cooler colors such as pale blue-gray, buff, brown, soft olive green and lavender were used in painting. Later on in the eighteenth century at Siena and other towns in Tuscany this style was also used. Castelli, a town in the region of Abruzzo, frequently used figures and religious scenes on their majolica.

Today, Italy still manufactures majolica in the same regions that made it centuries ago, like Tuscany and Umbria. Many specialty gift shops sell majolica today that is patterned after Renaissance designs that were once popular in Italy and are considered collectible if just for the beautiful artisan work. Tableware and decorative pieces usually range from $30.00 to several hundred dollars per piece, depending on the size, decoration, and style.

Some descriptions of early Italian majolica:

From Deruta, a 16 1/2" panel bearing a shield of arms with a crescent design, vines and two birds on each side of the shield with a ribbon at the base. The colors in this majolica piece are dark blue, pale green, and deep orange. Circa 1490.

From Deruta, a dish for an ewer. The center has a bishop's coat of arms with cupids, two busts on either side of the coat of arms, flowers and fruits in the background. The colors used on this plate are: blue, orange, yellow and blue-green. Circa 1500 to 1510.

From Castel Durante, a plate bearing cupids with mythical animals, jewels, and tridents, decorated by Giovanni Maria. Circa 1510.

From Castel Durante, a plate with a cupid on a fish in the sea with a castle in the background, the wide border containing human torsos, arabesques, and busts. The plate has a polychrome finish. Circa 1510.

From Faienza, a plate known as "The Adoration of Jesus" with a border of fruit and acanthus leaves, dolphins, and winged dragons. Colors used are: yellow, olive green, and violet, with the rim in a dark blue background. Circa 1505.

About the Author

Mary Haberstroh lives in Tucson, Arizona and she is a collector of antique and vintage glass. She can be reached at: daryavaush@yahoo.com

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