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italian majolica
taking your table back to the old country

By Laura Pazzaglia

Only after an Italian puts their hand on a craft could it gain world-wide fame and be considered an art. The indelible popularity of majolica (or "maiolica" as Italians like to call it) is as vivid as the colors that grace it's gentle form. Colors that, on the originals, are still as bright as when the potter first fired the piece.

You've seen these jars, plates and various beautiful accoutrements on the cover of cook-books, wrapped around enthusiastic plant roots, hanging on kitchen walls, and resting on the kitchen counters of your favorite Italian's house.

Not originally Italian
The origins of Italian Majolica seem to be in the East, with examples of tin oxide pottery found in Baghdad and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) as early as the 9th century.

By the 13th century, traders were importing pottery to Italy through the North African port city of Majorca. Medieval Italians, under the impression that the pottery was created in Majorca, referred to all tin glazed earthenware and lusterware "Maiolica" regardless of its place of origin.

Soon, Italians began to create their own tin glazed pottery; first, by copying Spanish and Islamic designs they had seen then adding their own designs to the mix. Early pieces were cups and containers to hold liquids such as oil or wine. Royalty soon demanded fine pieces for love tokens and gifts.

related books...

Deruta:A Tradition of Italian Ceramics

Italian Maiolica

Maiolica in the Making

Italian Maiolica : Catalogue of the Collections

Italian Renaissance Ceramics : The Howard S. and Janet H. Stein Collection

related sites...
Making Maiolica

Renaissance Maiolica as a Material Culture Study

Picol Passo and the Art of Maiolica in 16th century Italy

Historical and Contemporary Maiolica

The rise of Majolica in Italy paralleled the enormous wealth amassed by the nobility and the merchant class whose patronage was critical to the pursuit of excellence in all arts during the late 15th and the early 16th centuries. This was a fertile artistic time throughout central Italy. As mobility increased with wealth, artist and artisans collaborated for the great cathedrals, courts and palazzi.

The Medici's are an example of a merchant and banking family, lending money to the most powerful countries (such as France and England), rising to power without being aristocrats. During this rise their cultural and consumerist tastes were continually refined and they supported all the arts, including the art of Majolica.

Italian Majolica Centers
Most of the ceramic villages are located along the riverbanks where there are natural clay deposits. Specifically, towns located near the Tiber River in Umbria and the Arno River in Tuscany.

Each Ceramic region has an intrinsic style and history.

DERUTA AND GUBBIO- Situated in the province of Umbria, this is Italy's largest pottery center and home to more than 250 artisans. Deruta is renown for its Bella Donna plates, a favorite commission of the Italian nobility, other intricate wares decorated with Lustre and, of course, Ricco Deruta and Raffaellesco designs.

MONTELUPO FLORENTINO- East of Firenze on the banks of the Arno, Montelupo is the center of most Tuscan patterns. The work of the artisans here is elegant and highly detailed, with a flair for adapting traditional ideas for modern tastes.

FIRENZE AND SESTO FIORENTINO-Each of these centers is world renown for producing highly creative and beautifully executed ceramics in traditional and contemporary styles. Individual studios have developed signature colors and patterns.

ORVIETO - Is known for three motifs: Arcaico, a motif based on medieval primitive pottery, Etrusco, copies of etruscan artifacts left by the Etruscans from this region and Dame plates decorated with court figures. The Orvieto palette was limited to Magnese (a deep purple brown made from Magnesium) and Verde Ramina made from copper (a green oxide found on the church bells) .

THE AMALFI COAST-In the province of Salerno, the artisans produce an equally exciting style of Maiolica with a unique flair. Majolica artists work in a less formal manner and are best known for pieces bearing the lemon and citrus growing in their region and creating patterns that are intensely colorful and exciting.

FAENZA - A city-state which houses one of the world's most comprehensive ceramic museums. This was the family seat of the powerful Della Rovere Family. One of the signature design motifs of this region is an acorn pattern based on the family's crest. This is also the region that produced the Garofano (Carnation) pattern. First produced in the 17th century in the workshop of Count Fermiani, this design took its inspiration directly from Chinese porcelain seen by the Count on his travels through the Orient.

history of italian pottery
7th B.C. - 5th B.C.
Etruscan pieces dated to this time frame. The ceramic pieces found are not those of ancient man but works of art beautifully shaped and artfully decorated; this ceramic, called "bucchero" was usually black and very thin.

5th B.C.
Romans are on the scene; their pottery is utilitarian with a red gloss, sometimes decorated. As the Roman legions move and set up camps, they also set up potteries. Because their armies are so large and the areas near their camps often grow into cities, they develop mass production of pottery. Their form and styles spread all over Europe and England.

30 B.C. - 70 A.D.
The best red gloss ware (Arrentine) is produced in Arezzo (Tuscany).

400 A.D. - 800 A.D.
Colors of green, white and brown found most often; light blue and yellow occasionally.

800 - 1000
Dark green and yellow glazes begin to be seen. Roman pottery continues. Decorations are simple lines etched into items or pellets of clay added to them. Chinese influence on Muslim potters is seen in Sicily.

1200 - 1400
Chinese influence continues as Venetians trade internationally. The use of glazes begins in Sicily; then moves northward. The first color used is a copper green which is applied to large areas; outlines of a brownish magenta are used as decorations.

1400 - 1500
Renaissance begins in Florence, decoration for art's sake begins to be seen. Decorative influences from northern Europe and Spain are seen. Majolica becomes well established. Faenza begins to produce distinctive patterns, known in France as faience. Blue glazes begin to be seen.

Lusterware develops in Deruta by Moorish potters fleeing Spain.

1500 - 1700
Majolica is first defined as tin glazed earthenware. That type of decorating had come from the Arabs to Spain during their conquest. The current definition of Majolica refers to an item made by hand of European clay, fired in a kiln, covered with white under glaze, decorated with mineral oxides and fired again to produce the colors of the minerals. 1650
Most colors are in use; no reds. In central Italy, motifs from masters are copied and painted on vases, plates and other objects. Shapes are adapted to show off the art or writings used in the decoration.

In central Italy, especially Faenza, but also Deruta, Florence, Gubbio and Montelupo, many new shapes are found. Decorations are abstract and also figurative. Literary inscriptions, mottoes and religious subjects are used. Later these styles spread to other parts of Italy. True reds are used.

1800 - 1900
Decorating in relief spread throughout Italy. School of artistic reproductions begins. Brightly colored earthenware is used for sculptural pieces and shapes. Technology for the mass production of ceramics continues to develop.

In addition to well known artist/potters, many factories, large and small, make pottery. Million of dollars worth of Majolica is shipped to the U.S. alone.

Evolution of Patterns
The patterns and colors used in Italian Maiolica are divided into three time periods, each reflecting the evolving skill and styles that artists developed and the changing demands of the marketplace.

ARCHAIC or SEVERE- Began around the 14th century. Pieces of this period are decorated with animals, plants, and simple patterns in brown, green, and yellow. Shapes were mostly useful household items.
COMPLEX OR BEAUTIFUL- During the 15th century patterns became more complicated, including flat drawings. Brilliant colors began to appear and a wide variety of shapes for numerous uses became available.
DECORATIVE-The 16th century was the time when Italian Maiolica came into full bloom. During the Renaissance ceramic arts captivated the public as much as paintings and sculptures. Artists produced an astonishing range of designs using flowers, fruits, scrollwork, cherubs, vines, and borders. They fashioned medallions, trophies, tiles, coats of arms, and work known as Istoriato, the art of telling a story on pottery with narrative scenes and subjects. With their imaginations unrestricted, artists produced patterns, colors and styles that are admired today.

Ancient & Renissance Collide
The use of Grotesques (like Raffaelesco) comic-like imaginary cretures has an interesting historic antidote. During the early development of majolica an Etruscan archeological site was uncovered with wall paintings which contained grotesques --it was widely believed that the entrance to Hell had been discovered. Many of the Renaissance painters made pilgrimages from their studios (Raphael from his commission on the Stanze e Loggia) to witness this new wonder. It made such an impression on Raphael he had his artisans decorate all of his frames with this motif.

A study of ancient Roman mosaics can also bring to light the inspiration of various motifs and patterns found in Majolica.

Poluplar Italian Majolica Patterns
As noted above, each pattern is influenced by each Italian region's invaders, trade partners, local traditions and artisans. This is just a small sampling of the many majolica patterns that are available today.

The central motif of the Raffaellesco pattern is a stylized dragon. The dragon was reputedly first painted by Raphael, master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance. Raffaellesco is a benevolent deity, bestowing good luck and fair wind to the seagoing merchants of the era. You will notice the puffs of wind exhaling from Raffaellesco's mouth. Raffaellesco is one of the most popular and enduring majolica patterns.

Arabesco (Arab Style) pattern's central motif consists of two kissing birds. It is available in single colors of blue, red and green as well as two versions done in two colors- blue/yellow and red/green.

Gallo, (Rooster) pattern's central motif is a proud, crowing rooster. In Italy, the rooster is symbol of good luck, and has been painted on ceramics for centuries. Gallo is available in green, red and blue.

Ricco's central motif consists of boldly painted blue and orange scrolling brushstrokes encircling several bunched balloons. Ricco dates from the 15th century and is one of the most classic and enduring patterns. It is also known as Ricco Deruta or simply, Deruta.

Spotting Impostors
The patterns are endless but identifying this beautiful ware is easy. Simply pick-up the object, say a plate, and look underneath. The supporting circle under the plate should be unglazed and an pink/orange terracotta color should be visible. This ring should feel rough in contrast with the smooth surrounding area. If, instead, the rough area is white then you're looking at a piece of porecelain that was painted witporcelainca pattern. Also, take a close look at the design. Majolica is always hand-painted and you should be able to see the brush strokes from the artist. If, instead, the color is completely even and there is small "waffleing" in the color which would be visible if the pattern were machine-stamped.

Majolica for sale
If a trip to Italy to begin or add-to your majolica collection is just not possible, there are hundreds of websites with beutiful online catalogs. Here are several we recommend.

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