Clay, Colour, and Fire: The Art of Maiolica

Clay, Colour, and Fire: The Art of Maiolica

It is simple to ignore that the greater part of individuals for the duration of the Renaissance did not have all set entry to the paintings that are so effectively-known to us today.


Artists like Raphael and Perugino painted for affluent patrons public know-how of their first artwork was dispersed through prints and drawings. These kinds of photos may perhaps have captured the dynamic compositions of the originals but lacked the vivid colour so necessary to their beauty. Fortunately, there was maiolica, a type of pottery that generally showcased vividly colored renditions of paintings and prints. Maiolica, with its common domestic use, prolonged the working experience of terrific will work of Italian Renaissance visible art to the household and dining table.

Maiolica is a tin-glazed earthenware. The multi-stage course of action of generating it began with shaping clay into desired types, ordinarily by wheel or mildew, then firing them. Future, artisans dipped the vessels into a direct-primarily based glaze mixed with tin. This established a white coating on to which they could paint their compositions, applying metallic oxide pigments this kind of as copper for environmentally friendly and cobalt for blue. Fired a next time, the resulting wares would lock the colours completely into the floor, accurately as we see them now. The technique—originally created in imitation of white Chinese porcelain—arrived in Italy from Islamic lands by way of Spain, just in time for the upsurge in the industry for new luxurious merchandise that Renaissance Italians sought to beautify their properties. By the early 16th century, the industry had unfold all through the total Italian peninsula from Venice in the north to Sicily in the south.

The artwork of the potter has two resources as its principal foundation. 1 comes from the artwork of design, the other from different alchemical insider secrets and elemental mixtures…the perfection of this artwork relies upon on the diligence of the grasp, on great clay, on very good colours, and then on the hearth.

—Vannoccio Biringuccio, De la pirotechnia, 1540

All around 1557, Cipriano Piccolpasso (1524–79) set out to generate a realistic handbook describing the tactics of tin-glazed earthenware. Titled Li Tre libri dell’arte del vasaio (The 3 Publications of the Potter’s Artwork), it relied in component on Vannoccio Biringuccio’s earlier scientific treatise De la pirotechnia, an earlier book on metallurgy. Piccolpasso’s beautifully illustrated and minutely specific operate reveals every single side of maiolica-creating, from the accumulating of the clay and the mixing of glazes to the development of well-known painted patterns. A lot of this information and facts had earlier been retained solution and was handed down from one artisan to a different.

Web page from the manuscript of Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio

Personal towns grew to become renowned for specified specialties. Deruta, for instance, was identified for its monumental display plates with ethical, religious, or allegorical themes. Particular person figures had been often accompanied by banderoles, or prolonged scrolls, quoting proverbs or mottoes of moral importance. Urbino, meanwhile, targeted on wares with complex narrative topics drawn from mythology, background, and historic literature.  

The Artwork Institute’s collection of maiolica includes two huge Deruta plates, known as piatti da pompa, that have been supposed to be applied as decoration and as devotional artwork in Renaissance houses. Piercings on the foot rings on the reverse show that they had been meant to be hung on partitions, like paintings. Such dishes could be acquired ready-produced from pottery workshops or commissioned with certain preferred subjects or inscriptions.

The substantial dish from Deruta illustrating the tale of Judith and Holofernes bears the impression of the biblical heroine holding a sword and a vessel made up of the head of Holofernes, the brutal Assyrian typical whom she beheaded in defense of her fellow Israelites. This maiolica painter likely drew inspiration from Raphael’s pictures of ancient heroines like Dido and Lucretia, which ended up identified by way of greatly circulated prints and drawings following compositions by Raphael, most notably people of Marcantonio Raimondi from close to 1510.

Meanwhile, the Display screen Plate with the Bust of a Girl demonstrates that Deruta ceramicists also turned to both of those well-known regional paintings and faraway frescoes for inspiration.


The banderole that winds its way as a result of the qualifications bears the inscription “Man proposes, God disposes,” a reminder to the viewer that though they could possibly make designs, God would have the ultimate acceptance.

The tasteful sitter on this plate is plainly motivated by masterworks by Perugino and his modern Pinturicchio. Perugino’s Erythraean Sibyl in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia furnished a close by supply, though Pinturicchio’s frescos in the Vatican would have been acknowledged to Deruta artists only by way of drawings built by copyists.

Other dishes in the Artwork Institute’s assortment display coats of arms, indicating that they had been at first portion of prestigious companies for when-distinguished people. However these patrons ended up distinguished ample to have heraldic arms and to fee maiolica, many of their identities are all but shed to us these days. A single these kinds of example is the dish from Urbino illustrated with the story of Narcissus, Cupid, and Echo Transformed into Stone, painted by the renowned Francesco Xanto Avelli, known as Xanto (1487–1542).

Francesco Xanto Avelli

The matter matter is drawn from reserve a few of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an historic narrative poem crammed with bawdy tales of gods behaving badly and the calamities that ensue when they meddle in the affairs of mortals. In this story, the nymph Echo falls hopelessly in enjoy with Narcissus upon spying him in the woods. His subsequent rejection results in her to flee and conceal in the forest right until she wastes absent, reworking into stone and ready to utter only repetitions of the words of others.

A prolific poet and well-educated personal himself, Xanto often marketed his literary awareness by inscribing the backs of his plates to recognize the topics on the fronts, regularly noting the literary resource from which they derived. He even more relished exhibiting his capacious know-how of visible sources by plucking photos from a large range of prints, specifically these by the Raphael university, mixing and matching components in clever, unusual, and often strange approaches. In fact, the figures on the plate can all be recognized in prints from the Artwork Institute’s collection.

Xanto, of system, was not the only maiolica painter to mine these resources. Figures drawn from them surface on plates by many other artists, suggesting that prints ended up extensively obtainable and circulating throughout maiolica workshops. One particular of the illustrations in Piccolpasso’s treatise displays pottery painters functioning from photos tacked on the wall powering them. 

Web page from the manuscript of Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio

Plates these as Xanto’s invite us into Renaissance properties and inspire us to envision the display screen of wit, conviviality, and erudition that went hand-in-hand with their use. Upon consuming the contents of their dishes, evening meal guests may well have delighted in making an attempt to guess the narrative on the entrance ahead of turning the plate above to reveal the identifying inscription. The brilliantly coloured narrative wares, as nicely as the amazing Deruta display screen plates, yield significant insights not only into artistic practice and workshop traditions of the time, but also the role that the wealthy visible society of Renaissance Italy performed in the daily life of its citizens.

—Nora Lambert, curatorial intern, Applied Arts of Europe

Look at out additional maiolica at the Art Institute of Chicago.


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