by Roderick Conway Morris

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Recasting porcelain in a glaze of glory

By Roderick Conway Morris
FAENZA, Italy 6 September 2003
Hermitage, St Petersburg
Laocoon by Francesco Xanto Avelli of Urbino, 1530



Medieval Christendom may have been in a more or less permanent state of conflict with Islam, but this did not prevent Islamic knowledge from flowing into the West. The conduit for much of this traffic was Moorish Spain. And it was indubitably through the Iberian peninsula and islands that the Islamic technique of tin-glazing ceramics, perfected in Baghdad in the ninth century as an alternative means of achieving the luminous effects of Chinese porcelain, arrived in Italy -- as witnessed by the term 'maiolica,' which most likely derived from the name of the Balearic island of Majorca.

Having adopted the technique, however, the potters and painters of Italy transformed the prototypes, turning this branch of the applied arts into one of the glories of the Italian Renaissance.

The refinement and variety of 15th- and 16th-century Italian maiolica was the result of a close symbiosis between the fine and the decorative arts. Painters of maiolica drew extensively on the great contemporary artists -- such as Michelangelo, Parmigianino, Raphael and his followers -- whose works were gaining an unprecedented level of distribution thanks to an explosion in print-making, with the additional effect that their interpretations of the art of classical antiquity became available to applied artists and craftsmen in even the remotest places.

Faenza, which had been a pottery town since the 12th century was by the early 16th century one of the leaders in the creation of these new forms of maiolica, and in time the name 'faïence' (as 'Faenza-ware' was dubbed in French) was used to describe tin-glazed earthenware in a number of languages.

The town still has a thriving ceramics industry and a renowned International Museum of Ceramics, founded in 1908 by Gaetano Ballardini, who died 50 years ago. To mark the anniversary, the museum is hosting 'The Golden Age of Maiolica,' an exhibition of 125 pieces from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg's stupendous collection (the beneficiary of more than two centuries of acquisitions). Curated by Elena Ivanova, who is also the principal author of a lucid and richly illustrated catalogue, the show continues until Oct. 26.

Within Italy there was a high level of artistic exchange between the various independent states that then divided the peninsula, and when it comes to maiolica it is often difficult to establish the exact provenance of a piece. As one expert in the field was wont jokingly to remark: 'If you don't know what it is, then it is from Faenza.' But the Faenza show takes the opportunity of bringing together decades of research to try to distinguish what comes from where and explain the salient characteristics of different artists and places of production.

It is heartening, for example, that the small but significant town of Castelli in Abruzzo, much of whose work was later attributed to Faenza, has been firmly put back on the maiolica map by recent researchers, among them two scholars who are descended from Renaissance master potters from Castelli.

A key innovation of Italian maiolica was the introduction of the narrative style, and in the Golden Age of maiolica almost every pitcher, plate and bowl tells a story. Themes ran from Old and New Testament stories to ancient mythology, from the historical to the allegorical. When it came to source material, ceramic artists were, as Ivanova demonstrates, extremely eclectic - thinking nothing of taking figures and details from several different paintings, transporting, for example, actors from Christian religious scenes into pagan settings, and vice versa.

New discoveries from the classical past could soon make their way to the table. The celebrated 'Laocoon' sculpture, of the Trojan priest and his sons being killed by sea-serpents, unearthed in Rome in 1506, duly found its way, through the medium of more than one set of Raphaelesque prints, onto a magnificent plate by the poet-potter Francesco Xanto Avelli of Urbino.

Grotesques, inspired by the rediscovery of Roman decorative painting, especially in Nero's 'Golden House' in Rome, the tunneling into the buried remains of which had created a series of visitable underground 'grottoes' (hence the name), were also enthusiastically adopted for complex maiolica motifs, and in some cases took over the entire decorative scheme. Another delightful purpose of maiolica was for the making of so-called 'loving cups,' made in Castel Durante, portraying beautiful women and occasionally couples, which were given as amorous gifts.

Urbino achieved during the 15th century, under the warrior-humanist Duke Federico de Montefeltro, the status of a cultural powerhouse well out of proportion to its size, and aside from the city itself, the Duchy contained a further three of the most prominent maiolica towns: Pesaro, Gubbio and Castel Durante. Indeed, the Duchy became the most important single territory for maiolica production, due in part to the River Metuaro along which Urbino, Castel Durante, Pesaro and other smaller pottery producers lay, and which provided the clay they employed. The decisive role this watercourse played is reflected in the group description of them as the 'Metauro School.'

The Duchy, which between 1508 and 1631 was ruled by a succession of dukes of the Della Rovere family, also gave rise to some extraordinary political pottery. The first Della Rovere duke, Francesco, was temporarily displaced by the Medici pope Leo X, who wished to grant the fiefdom to one of his supporters. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invaded Italy and sacked Rome in 1527 (then presided over by another Medici, Clement VII), he returned the Duchy to Francesco. Charles went on to conquer Florence in 1530.

Although these events were in most respects a disaster for Italy, bringing with them terrible loss of life and destruction, in this Machiavellian world one's enemies' enemies were ever one's friends, and Francesco had his court artist Xanto Avelli create two dramatic and exquisitely decorated plates displayed here, celebrating the victories of the Emperor and the discomfiture of his loathed rivals, the Medici, entitled: 'Charles V Punishes a Corrupt Rome,' and 'Florence Insulted by Her Own Children.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024