by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

History at the Table in Renaissance Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 28 June 2012
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'Suicide of Cleopatra',
probably by Francesco Xanto Avelli, 1527-8



The finest majolica enjoyed enormous esteem in Renaissance Italy. And the most prized of all was 'istoriato' majolica, decorated with narrative scenes.

The Medici were voracious collectors of the tin-glazed decorated earthenware and, though hundreds of items were dispersed (200 pieces were sold at the end of the 18th century), the Bargello museum here inherited a superlative selection.

The special role as a vehicle of humanist culture of this istoriato majolica, which in the late 15th and 16th century became an almost ubiquitous presence in every princely, aristocratic and well-to-do home, is the subject of 'Fabulae Pictae: Myths and Stories in Renaissance Majolica' at the Bargello. This illuminating exhibition of 'Painted Stories,' curated by Marino Marini, not only showcases some of the museum's own majolica masterpieces but has cast its net wide to bring in wonderful examples from a score of other collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Italian cities tended to dominate the production of the fine and decorative arts, majolica was consistently made in smaller provincial centers, notably in the Marche, Urbino, Pesaro and Deruta in the Duchy of Urbino - where almost all the pieces in this show originally come from - and Faenza. Despite the Medici passion for it, only relatively small quantities of top-quality majolica were manufactured in Florence and Tuscany.

A resplendent court culture of its own able to supply a high level of intellectual and artistic input to guide the majolica painters, suitable clay resources and an abundance of wood to fuel furnaces gave the Marche region an advantage in developing this prestigious industry. As early as 1486, Camilla Sforza, regent of the lordship of Pesaro, was enacting measures to promote local majolica makers whose works were, in her words, praised by 'every connoisseur in all Italy and beyond Italy.'

This exhibition is spread across two halls, the first displaying majolica decorated with themes inspired by ancient mythology, the second with pieces illustrating Homeric epics and Roman history.

Interestingly, it was the dawn of the age of printing that lay behind the labor-intensive, hand-executed work of the istoriato majolica artists. The publication of vernacular stories and translations provided multiple narratives, Biblical and classical, from which the painters could draw scenes, the poems of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' providing one of the most important single sources. Many of these books were also illustrated with woodcuts, which offered new visual references along with the texts.

The first decades of the 16th century also saw an explosion of engraving on copper plates, making available printed images of hundreds of art works, old and new, from classical sculptures and buildings to the latest frescoes and paintings by the Urbino-born Raphael (a favorite in his home territory) and other contemporary artists.

Armed with these source materials, majolica painters could deliver a rich array of literature, learning and art literally on a plate, in works that were equally admired for their brilliant permanent colors and the skills of their creators. For majolica painting did not allow for corrections, making every piece of the finest majolica a virtuoso performance.

Major pieces and sets of majolica - like the one sent by Eleonora, duchess of Urbino, to her mother, Isabella d'Este, the widowed marchesa of Mantua in 1524, suggesting it might go well in her country villa - were often commissioned by women, and they became an important element of fashionable interior decoration.

An understanding of the sources of Renaissance majolica imagery is essential to appreciating the significance that majolica had for its contemporary audience, a task laudably fulfilled by the juxtaposition here of contemporary woodcuts, engravings, drawings, medals, placquettes and bronzes with the majolica pieces they inspired.

For example, next to a large dish from Deruta of 'Hercules and the Nemean Lion' (from around 1520-40) is the actual woodblock that made the Venetian print from which it derived. Other pieces are accompanied by the relevant engravings from the prolific printmakers from Raphael's studio, many of them made by Marcantonio Raimondi, Marco Dente and Gian Giacomo Caraglio.

Prints of Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican and the Villa Farnese gave rise to numerous majolica versions of scenes taken from them, which made these works in Rome familiar sights to many a household that would never have had the opportunity to see them in situ (both prints and majolica are represented here).

By the same means, archeological discoveries like the Hellenistic Laocoön statue group, unearthed in Rome in 1506, reached a domestic audience of all ages beyond the world of antiquarians, print collectors and scholars. This could lead to a process of radical simplification of the original, as shown here by the juxtaposition of a fine Marco Dente print, a superb Jacopo Sansovino bronze and an almost cartoon-like Urbino majolica of the Laocoön statues.

German printmakers also made a substantial contribution, Dürer and Schongauer being among the most popular, along with such engravers as the Nuremberg artist Georg Pencz, who provided the composition for 'The Suicide of Lucrezia' that appears in the central oval of a platter, surrounded by exquisite Raphaelesque grotesques on a white background, from the Fontana workshop in Urbino (around 1565-75), on display here.

The juxtaposition of sources and works also highlights how inventive the best majolica artists could be. Prominent among these was the famous Francesco Xanto Avelli, originally from Rovigo in the Veneto, but who took up residence in Urbino. He was also a poet and courtier and adept at combining elements from a wide range of sources. He is represented here by a dramatic bowl of 'Hercules and Cerberus,' signed, and dated 1536, with the subject identified on the back. (Even unsigned works frequently identify the subject of the scene with a caption-like explanation on the reverse.) Avelli is also almost certainly the author of the beautiful and subtly erotic 'Cleopatra' bowl, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

The signing and dating of such works, at a time when it was not the standard practice even for authors of fine art pieces, is an index of the status that majolica painters could achieve.

Original drawings were sometimes ordered for elaborate sets of majolica vessels. Of near mythical renown among these was the 'Spanish Service' commissioned in 1560 by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino, which was to be sent as a gift to the Spanish king, Philip II. The theme was the life of Julius Caesar, and the preparatory drawings were by Taddeo Zuccari, according to a narrative devised by the poet and humanist Annibal Caro.

It is plausible that the subject was intended to prod Philip into taking a more active role in fighting the Ottomans, but the service never arrived in Spain, the vessel conveying it having been perhaps sunk or captured by the Turks.

Fortunately, however, several additional pieces, based on the same designs, with lively images of the triumphs of Caesar framed by decorative grotesques of extraordinary intricacy and delicacy, were executed by the Fontana workshop in Urbino, and five of these works, along with 16th-century copies of Taddeo Zuccari's relevant drawings, bring this absorbing exhibition to a suitably impressive close.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024