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History of Italian Majolica Ceramics

The word ceramics comes from the Greek word for horn or keras.  From prehistoric times horns and earthenware vessels functioned as containers – Keramica describes the working of clay thence hardening beneath the hot desert sun.  Perhaps a clay vessel accidentally fell from the ring of rocks circling a cooking fire into the hot ash -- when retrieved later it was found to have benefited from the “firing…”  Evolving eventually into the use of clay fired containers for the specific storage of grains, food, water, wine and oil…  Today the centuries old practice and culture is perpetuated, frequently each generation of artisans passing the craft from family member to family member preserving, refining practice and technique, while embellishing the art and techniques capturing and preserving for your enjoyment functional pieces of art.


Today, different types of clay, combined with natural ingredients like sodium, potassium feldspar, are the necessary first steps to obtain specific earthenware products like Ceramics, Maiolica or Porcelain.


In ancient times, only China and Persia were able to create porcelain. Porcelain objects were highly appreciated for their qualities of impermeability and durability of finish, though the necessary ingredient, kaolin, was a jealously kept secret. Regular clay ceramics needed surface glazing in order to hold liquids.  An ancient rough glazing called Ingobbio was available but it is only in the 6th Century A.D. that Arabs found that certain mineral oxides, once dissolved in water, could be absorbed on the porous surface of fired clay. The biscuit or bisque (pottery that has been fired but not yet glazed), then can be decorated and once fired a second time obtaining an object called Maiolica.  White glazed, often painted over with beautiful decorations though most importantly exhibiting a hard, smooth surface having qualities similar to porcelain.  As the Berber – Arabs or Moors started moving westward, conquering North Africa, Spain, and Sicily, they brought with them their Maiolica working techniques. In the 13th century Italians thought that this new type of ceramics had originated from the island of Majorca, and they called it Maiolica. In reality Majorca, an island south of Spain, was the port from which ships sailed to bring to Italy their precious cargos of ceramics.


The ancient Republic of Pisa was the seaport where, in the 13th Century, ceramics from Majorca were unloaded and then transported inland on the Arno River, going through Montelupo Florentino giving to this Tuscan ceramic center the historical advantage of a first look at how Hispano-Moorish ceramics were made. How about Umbria? Little known is the fact that Orvieto, right in the center of Italy, was one of the first Italian Maiolica centers. This flourishing medieval town of Etruscan origin, had access to its own seaport, Orbetello through the Tiber River. The 13th century Orvieto pottery, painted mostly with brown and green colors, was so prized that it was traded and sold throughout the Arab world particularly in their eastern Mediterranean markets.


The first historical period of Italian Maiolica encompasses part of the 14th century as well as most of the 15th century. During this period, the pieces were decorated based on abstract and geometric motifs and created mostly for utilitarian purposes.  Towards the end of the 15th century, human portraits became very popular especially with the painting of plates or bowls called Coppa Amatoria “Lover's Cup” -- a dedication to a loved one. Very large plates called Piatti da Pompa “Pompous Plates” were painted to honor a celebrity or a personal achievement.  During this period, one man, Luca Della Robbia, was most instrumental in bringing Maiolica to the level of the other major art forms -- painting and sculpture.  Luca started as a marble sculptor.  However, the carving of marble is laborious and time-consuming endeavor, Luca turned to clay, molds, glazes and kilns. Especially beautiful are Luca's white glazes, soft in texture and certainly warmer and richer to look at than a polished marble surface.


In the 16th century Maiolica developed as a perfect combination between function and art. One example is the Apothecary Jar, Albarello in Italian, used in pharmacies to store herbs, drugs, syrups, powders and pills. The other most important example is the creation of Maiolica tableware. Dinnerware sets started to be produced in Faenza, Deruta and Castelli. These services were commissioned by aristocratic families who wanted to impress their guests by having the family coat of arms painted on each plate. The introduction of Maiolica dishes achieved a social revolution. Before, meals were presented in large wooden platters from which each guest could help himself.  Renaissance Maiolica brought civility to dining habits and made a real difference, aesthetically and hygienically.


Towards the end of the 16th century the Istoriato style became the highest artistic expression of Italian Renaissance Maiolica. The object, plate or vase, is only a physical support for elaborate narrative scenes - historical or mythological: the painter simply expresses his creativity. Some famous artists of Istoriato style are: Niccolo' da Urbino, Francesco Santo Avelli, Mastro Giorgio, Baldassarre Manoro and Orazio Fontana. The productions from this extraordinary period shows figures whose characters have gracious bodies and delicate flesh colors; they move in an airy composition with perfect space perspective. By this time, Italian Maiolica was so popular that Maiolica, everywhere else in Europe, had been translated into a new word: Faience, from the Maiolica town of Faenza.


In the 19th century, private collectors and museums started collecting all available original Renaissance pieces and that helped to revive interest in the Renaissance traditional Maiolica. Soon artisans were creating perfect copies that could defy the originals!


Maiolica undoubtedly has a great appeal for many people and for many artists - Picasso for example. The main reason probably is that the creative process of making Maiolica remains the same as it was 500 years ago. The potter may now have an electric wheel, instead of pushing a pedal to throw the clay. The wood burning kilns have been replaced by electric and gas kilns, but all the work that goes into creating a Maiolica piece follows the same ancient tradition, ... especially hand painting “dipinto a mano,” where quality and artistry define a true Maiolica piece.


~Gianfranco Savio