Italian Maiolica: Ceramics of the Renaissance

The evolution of the term Maiolica is almost as interesting as the development and spread of the style itself.
There are four different meanings associated with the term.

  • In origin the word is a medieval Italian form of the name of the island of Majorca.

  • Renaissance Italians used the term to describe Hispano-Moresque imports and other luster wares, which were sometimes shipped through Majorca to Italy.

  • In modern Italian (and some parts of Italy in the 16th century) its meaning has broadened to ‘tin glazed earthenware’.

  • In English, it is used to refer to tin glazed earthenware in the stylistic tradition of the Italian Renaissance.

Note: ‘Maiolica’ may be spelt ‘Majolica’. Both terms are used in modern references and considered equally valid and inter-changeable.

The principal colors of Maiolica are: blue (cobalt), green (copper), purple and brown (manganese), yellow (antimony), orange (antimony and iron) and white (tin).


Ceramic Origins


Tin glazed items were not invented by the Italians, in fact the beauty of eastern ceramics had been well known to the Renaissance Italians for a long time.
The first examples of this technique were found in Baghdad and dated to the 9th Century - there symmetrical patterns were painted in blue and white.
However by the by the end of the 11th century Islamic pottery, including lusterware, had been in widespread use for the embellishment of religious and civic buildings. Thought to have been introduced by the crusaders at the as trophies demonstrating victories over the pagans by powerful Christian forces.

During the 13th through to the early 15th century Tuscany had good trade relations with Moorish Spain and imported large quantities of lusterware from Spain. This is when the Italians began to work with tin glazed ware. It is interesting to note that the only difference between the Italian and Spanish products of this period is the absence of luster on the Italian wares.

The map below shows the sweeping migration of tin glazed tradition from Baghdad, then with the advance of Islam, it was carries the length of the Northern African seaboard into Moorish Spain, this occurred during the 10th Century. Then during the 13th Century through to the 15th Century, Spanish pottery was transported through Majorca to Italy.


The Italians took great pains to copy the styles of the Spanish and Islamic designs but remained ignorant to the production of luster tones which were found on these tin glazed ceramics. In place of the luster, the Italians imitated the effect by using orange-yellow color through fine manganese.

Italian Maiolica eventually dominated the pottery of Europe and set a trend that lasted more than three hundred years.

The most common surviving pieces from the earliest period of majolica are storage vessels made for monastic pharmacies, usually labeled to indicate their contents and decorated with contemporary Hispano-Moresque motifs or the symbols of saints credited with healing powers. Because of Islamic prohibitions against it, the human form was rarely depicted on majolica pottery prior to 1450 but became characteristic of its design by the beginning of the 16th century. The majolica of Deruta is noted for its stylized portrait heads and figures and seems to have been the first Italian ware to adopt (c.1500) the Valencian technique of of using luster glazes to produce metallic and iridescent effects. From Deruta the technique was probably brought to Gubbio, where a ruby-red luster color was evolved. Relief-molded wares, designed to enhance the brilliance of the iridescence, were produced at both towns.

In the late 15th century majolica became more decorative and less functional. Dishes and vases were designed primarily for display, especially the pictorial narrative styles associated with Urbino. Subjects for illustration were taken from Roman history, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and occasionally from contemporary literature. Imagery was often derived from engravings or from woodcut book illustrations.

Sixteenth-century majolica decoration evolved away from pictorialism and was frequently derived from engravings of ornamental motifs, published for the use of decorative designers. These motifs, following the prevalent enthusiasm for Greek and Roman antiquities, conjured up a pagan world populated by cupids, satyrs, sphinxes, and other mythical beings. Acanthus foliage, palmettes, and the Roman "trophy" of arms were common motifs. From the East, by way of Venice and Islamic metalworkers there, came the arabesque style, a continuous interlacing of formalized leaves and branches. At Urbino a sophisticated style evolved that consisted of a bizarre medley of winged monsters, grotesque semi human creatures, urns, and masks, linked by swags and garlands. These delicately painted, whimsical grotesque elements were set off by a technically perfect white glaze. The Urbino factories also produced small statues, whose forms were inspired by contemporary work in bronze. The ultimate reaction against the overworked polychrome narrative style was the plain white ware of Faenza, the thick glaze appreciated for its own sake. The dispersal of majolica craftsmen, particularly from Faenza, exerted a profound influence on European pottery styles and, in particular, of the Netherlands, where, in the early 17th century, the tin-glaze technique was taken up and used to imitate Chinese porcelain.

Betty Elzea Bibliography: Pica, Agnoldomenico, Italian Majolica Tile, trans. by James Pallas (1971); Rackham, Bernard, Italian Maiolica (1952); Schneider, Mike, Majolica (1989).


About Pottery
The production of pottery is one of the most ancient arts. The oldest known body of pottery dates from the Jomon period (from about 10,500 to 400 BC) in Japan; and even the earliest Jomon ceramics exhibit a unique sophistication of technique and design. Excavations in the Near East have revealed that primitive fired-clay vessels were made there more than 8,000 years ago.
Potters were working in Iran by about 5500 BC, and earthenware was probably being produced even earlier on the Iranian high plateau. Chinese potters had developed characteristic techniques by about 5000 BC. In the New World many pre-Columbian American cultures developed highly artistic pottery traditions.


Types of Wares
Pottery comprises three distinctive types of wares.
The first type, earthenware, has been made following virtually the same techniques since ancient times.
Earthenware is basically composed of clay--often blended clays- -and baked hard, the degree of hardness depending on the intensity of the heat. After the invention of glazing, earthen-wares were coated with glaze to render them waterproof; sometimes glaze was applied decoratively.
It was found that, when fired at great heat, the clay body became nonporous.
This second type of pottery, called stoneware, came to be preferred for domestic use.

The third type of pottery is a Chinese invention that appeared when feldspathic material in a fusible state was incorporated in a stoneware composition. The ancient Chinese called decayed feldspar kaolin substance known in the West as china clay.

Two types of porcelain evolved: "true" porcelain, consisting of a kaolin hard-paste body, extremely glassy and smooth, produced by high temperature firing, and soft porcelain, invariably translucent and lead glazed, produced from a composition of ground glass and other ingredients including white clay and fired at a low temperature.


Decorating Techniques
In the course of their long history potters have used many decorating techniques. Among the earliest, impressing and incising of wares are still favored. Ancient potters in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, northern India, and the high regions of Central Asia frequently decorated wares with impressed or incised designs.

An especially popular type of decoration involved the sgraffito, or "scratched," technique used by Italian potters before the 15th century.

By the 16th century Italian potters working mainly in Padua and Bologna had developed great skill in sgraffito, which entailed the incising of designs on red or buff earthenware that had been coated with ordinary transparent lead glaze, usually toned yellow or, sometimes, brown, copper, or green.
Just like today, after firing, the wares were dipped into white clay slip so that a dark pattern could be cut on the surface. By cutting through the white slip, the artist produced a design on the exposed red or buff body. Pigments were also sometimes applied. After a further coating of lead glaze the ware was fired a second time.

A sound knowledge of glazes--both utilitarian and decorative-- is vital to the potter. The origin of glazes and glazing techniques is unknown, but the fine lustrous glazes developed in China surely began with a simple glaze that served to cover earthenware and render it watertight. Potters in Mesopotamia and Iran commonly used an alkaline glaze made of quartz mixed with sodium and potassium. An admixture of colored metallic oxides, mostly lead, was introduced later.

Painting on pottery and porcelain became richly colorful in many regions and periods.

For a long period ceramic artists had used only black or brown pigment to decorate wares that were then covered with clear glaze. It is believed that the appearance in China of 13th-century brush-decorated wares from Persia sparked a change. These works, painted in blue cobalt under the glaze, inspired the brushwork of the Chinese, and the resulting so-called blue-and-white style prevailed for a long time.

In the Islamic world, ceramic decorative art flowered with the creation of a great diversity of painted wares. Painted luster decoration on pottery originated in Mesopotamia and spread to ancient Egypt; later, under Islam in Persia, this type of decoration on white-glazed wares became incredibly brilliant. Islamic luster-painted wares were later masterfully developed by Italian potters during the Renaissance.


EARTHENWARE
A distinctive type of earthenware known as majolica, appeared in Italy during the last quarter of the 14th century. It is now believed that this type of painted earthenware was inspired by the Hispano- Moresque luster-decorated ware of Spanish origin introduced to Italy by Majorcan seagoing traders.

Majolica ware, whether thrown on the wheel or pressed into molds, was fired once to obtain a brown or buff body, then dipped in glaze composed of lead and tin oxide with a silicate of potash.
The opaque glaze presented a surface that was suitable to receive decoration. A second firing after decoration fixed the white glaze to the body and the pigments to the glaze, so that the colors became permanently preserved. Frequently, the beauty of these wares was increased by dipping them in a translucent lead glaze composed of oxide of lead mixed with sand, potash, and salt.
When certain luster pigments and enamels were used in all-over painting, wares had to be specially fired at low temperature. Application of metallic luster pigments required great skill because these colors were extremely volatile and needed special handling.

Luca della Robbia work raised majolica production from a craft to high art in Italy. Not only did he use blue and white enamels in decorative work, but, as a sculptor, he also used the majolica technique to add brilliance to the surface of his productions… 



ABOUT ARABESQUE’
{air-uh-besk'}  
In art, an arabesque is a decorative pattern composed of rhythmic, curvilinear designs.
The term, derived from the Italian Arabesco ("Arab-like"), is usually associated with the intricate geometric or foliated scrollwork seen in Islamic architecture, miniature painting, and minor arts.
The motif was also employed in the late Roman and Renaissance periods.


ABOUT “GROTESQUE”
{groh-tesk'}
The term grotesque, an English borrowing from the Italian grottesca, was first applied by Renaissance archaeologists to classical Roman fresco paintings discovered in excavations then called grotte, or caves. The extravagant combinations of animal, plant, and human forms found in such paintings were quickly imitated by artists and followers of Raphael. Since the 18th century the term has gained a wide and imprecise literary currency, and refers to fanciful or distorted images of natural forms used for comic or alarming effect.


THE RENAISSANCE
The term Renaissance, adopted from the French equivalent of the Italian word rinascita, meaning literally "rebirth," describes the radical and comprehensive changes that took place in European culture during the 15th and 16th centuries, bringing about the demise of the Middle Ages and embodying for the first time the values of the modern world.



THE RENAISSANCE IN ITALY
The "rebirth" of art in Italy was connected with the rediscovery of ancient philosophy, literature, and science and the evolution of empirical methods of study in these fields. 
Central to the development of Renaissance art was the emergence of the artist as a creator, sought after and respected for his erudition and imagination.


The Early Renaissance
The principal members of the first generation of Renaissance artists--Donatello in sculpture, Filippo Brunelleschi in architecture, and Masaccio in painting--shared many important characteristics. Central to their thinking was a faith in the theoretical foundations of art and the conviction that development and progress were not only possible but essential to the life and significance of the arts.
The Early Renaissance was not, as was once maintained, merely an imperfect but necessary preparation for the perfection of High Renaissance art but a period of great intrinsic merit.
 
The High Renaissance  
The High Renaissance style endured for only a brief period (c.1495-1520) and was created by a few artists of genius, among them Leonardo da Vinci, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian.

The Late Renaissance
A major watershed in the development of Italian Renaissance art was the sack of Rome in 1527, which temporarily ended the city's role as a source of patronage and compelled artists to travel to other centers in Italy, France, and Spain. Even before the death of Raphael, in 1520, anticlassical tendencies had begun to manifest themselves in Roman art.

Patronized by leading banking families like the Medici, the classicizing Early Renaissance style was initiated in Florence during the 1420s by Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masaccio. Through his study of Giotto, Masaccio had rediscovered the Italian classical tradition, and, traveling together to Rome, Brunelleschi and Donatello derived new understanding of antiquity by studying ancient Roman ruins and sculptures. Their observations, coupled with the humanistic Tuscan intellectual climate, engendered an avant-garde aesthetic that replaced the Gothic in Italy by the end of the century.

Florentine architects determined the design standards for Early Renaissance buildings. Churches were organized on either a central plan or a combination central and rectangular plan. Residential palaces were developed around a central arcaded courtyard, or cortile. The relationship of architectural proportion and human scale was a Renaissance concern first manifested in the works of Brunelleschi.

Donatello was the most influential Early Renaissance sculptor. His David (c.1430-32; Bargello, Florence), the first free-standing bronze nude statue since antiquity, revived the classical compositional device of contrapposto, showed a concern for psychological interpretation, and displayed a scientific, as well as an erotic, interest in the human body. Poetic mood and lyrical line or contour typified the busts and reliefs of mid-century Florentines such as Luca della Robbia and Desiderio da Settignano. The anecdotal realism of Verrocchio, Andrea del and the energetic studies of the figure in motion of Antonio Pollaiuolo were dominant in late-15th-century Florence.


 Learn about the Making of Italian Majolica


References:
Dawe N, 1993, La Maiolica, Pottery in Australia, Spring, Vol 32 No 3, pp 30 – 31.
Morley-Fletcher H, 1984, Techniques of the World’s Great Masters of Pottery and Ceramics, Chartwell Books New Jersey.
Spronk P, 1984, The Delft Blue Wall Tile: A short story from Holland, Pottery in Australia, May/June, Vol 23 No 1, pp14 – 19.
Wechler S, 1981, Low Fire Ceramics – A new direction in American clays, Watson-Guptill Publications NY.
Wilson T, 1989, Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University London.