Italy – Pre 1600

Italian Maiolica from 15th to 16th century

Maiolica is tin-glazed earthenware made white by the addition of tin oxide. This type of white tin based glaze is much more stable when fired, creating an opaque surface for painting. Tin-glazed pottery was initially imported into Italy from the Middle East and North Africa around 12th – 13th century.

Not many Italian pottery survived intact before the 15th century and this is because of the belief that the outbreak of the bubonic plague pandemic, the black death that was peaking in Europe between 1348 and 1350 and took more than 150 years for the Europe’s population to recover, was transmitted by the pottery vessels in daily use.

Florence prob. (Giunta di Tugio) ca.1431 - Metropolitan Museum NY

Some of the earliest jugs and bowls of that period were made in Orvieto (Umbria), Perugia and Tuscany, especially Florence that as a great mercantile centre of Italy was open to influences imported from Spain, Low Countries and the Orient. Motifs of that age were simple and colours available were purple and turquoise green. One of the finest potters of that era and probably the earliest Italian potter we can attribute existing wares of maiolica with confidence is Giunta di Tugio di Giunta.

Around 1450 Italian potters developed a completely new to European ceramics decoration. Including motifs from nature, such as scrolling foliage and peacock feathers, imitating Chinese patterns and Islamic designs and combining them with others from medieval traditions, they produced a great variety of forms replacing existing ornaments with more sophisticated designs.

Faenza 1535 (B. Manara) - V&A London UK

In addition, a completely new style of decorating pottery with stories from classical myths of the Bible emerged in Italy at the end of the 15th century. Known as istoriato, the style flourished in the Duke of Urbino’s lands, where several pottery painters established workshops. The istoriato style was not limited to Urbino, as there were also distinguished exponents of the technique elsewhere especially in Faenza, Venice and Verona. At the end of the 16th century maiolica with this narrative (istoriato) decoration largely went out of fashion and subsequently its production continued in France and in other places in N. Europe.

At the end of the 15th century, Faenza became a major centre of ceramic production, a production that sometimes was very similar with that of Florence. Confusion in the produced items exists as many of the potters and especially painters tended to be very mobile and change workshops during their career. At the beginning of the 16th century new cities became important centers including Deruta, Siena, Gubbio, Urbino, Casteldurante, Pesaro and Venice. Maiolica production of the period was strongly influenced by patterns from Greek and Roman antiquity. ‘Grotesques’ – ornamental designs with trophies and beasts overlaying a symmetrical framework – became popular and adopted in many centers.

Cafaggioto ca.1515 (Jacopo) - V&A London UK

Important developments of the early 16th period include the tendency to use the whole surface of the dish as a canvas for the painting and also the need of some artists to sign and date their work. This tradition probably started at the Cafaggiolo pottery (near Florence). Jacopo of Cafaggiolo was the first of whom we have a name. In Casteldurante, another great painter was Giovanni Maria (Zoan Maria as he signed himself) that was specialized in “a candelieri” decoration, a symmetrical arrangement of caryatids and trophies on a blue background (according to Cipriano di Michele Piccolpasso (1524-1579) a member of an Italian patrician family of Bologna that in about 1548 wrote the Li tre libri dell’arte del vasajo or “The three books of the potter’s art”).

Nicola Pellipario (in Casteldurante) was Giovanni Maria’s successor and possible his pupil. He was the first exponent of the istoriato style in which the entire surface of the dish was painted with a religious or mythological subject. In Urbino, another great istoriato painter worked at that era. His name was Francesco Xanto and one of his masterpieces was the armorial service he decorated for the Papal Gonfaloniere, Pier Maria Pucci in 1532.

In the 16th century Faenza reached the most significant period of its history, developing a series of techniques that would form the traditional “faience”, as it is known today, and becoming one of the most important ceramic centers in Italy. At Faenza two types of maiolica were produced. The first and most important were the wares with pale blue or berrettino glaze (obtained by adding cobalt blue to the glaze). The second was the maiolica with “a quartieri” decoration (around 1535 – 1575, Virgiliotto Calamelli workshop) with wares entirely covered in formal shaped panels in alternating colours.

Gubbio 1525 (G. Andreoli) - Metropolitan Museum NY

At Gubbio workshops in Umbria, the influence from lustre wares of Spain had an important impact. From the beginning of the 16th century till 1540 Deruta workers produced large dishes and vases decorated in a golden lustre with portraits of pretty girls and helmeted men. One of the most important Gubbio workshops was that of Maestro Giorgio’s that was specialized in pottery with golden or red lustre from about 1490. His workshop produced a wide range of wares till 1520s when he started adding lustre to maiolica with narrative (istoriato) decoration.

Last major 16th century centre of maiolica production was Venice. Production started in 1540 including a whole range of istoriato wares (hard to distinguish from the ones of the Duchy of Urbino) but also pieces decorated with fantastic landscapes and the classic output of the city, globular jars and cylindrical albarelli painted with portrait heads and full-length figures of Saints.

1. European Pottery, Hugo Morley-Fletcher and Roger McIlroy (Phaidon – Christie’s Ltd, 1984)
2. Italian Majolica in the Robert Lehman Collection, J. Rasmussen (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989)
3. Victoria and Albert Museum’s web site, at
4. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *