Putti, trophies, and grotesques- oh my! That seems to be the initial reaction to the iconography of the Maiolica Plate (c.1510-1520) currently on display at the National Gallery of Art. The motley quality of the Maiolica Plate relates not only to its surface decoration but also to the production of maiolica during the Italian Renaissance. Maiolica, a term to describe tin glazed earthenware made in Italy, has complex origins. In understanding the context for the Maiolica Plate, it is important to remember that the word “renaissance” means rebirth, and it is this emphasis on rediscovery -or better yet reinterpretation- that is so crucial to the development of the arts in Italy including maiolica. After all, Italian potters of the fifteenth and sixteenth century did not invent the process of making maiolica. This idea of reinterpretation in relation to maiolica includes influences from the Islamic world through their development of tin glazed ceramics as well as the inspiration from classical antiquity by recapturing the whimsical grotesque imagery found on ancient Roman walls. Through adapting concepts of making and designing from other cultures, maiolica ceramicists were able to make their pottery decidedly of the Italian Renaissance. In the instance of the Maiolica Plate, the Mannerist spirit of the period is conveyed through the use of the compendario style of maiolica. This Maiolica Plate demonstrates the secret to the success of the arts of the Italian Renaissance in their ability to adapt from various sources in order to create something new, albeit a bit grotesque.
The Maiolica Plate is as shallow dish with a large rim that is filled with polychrome decoration in which the imagery is derived from classical antiquity. At the center of the plate a winged putto figure carries a shield and spear as if pretending to be warrior while simultaneously being vulnerable if battle were to actually occur since he is nude. The putto poses in a contrapposto stance within a nondescript landscape. The stillness of the putto’s background setting complements the busy composition of the outer rim.
Before delving deeper into the strange iconography of the Maiolica Plate, the arrival of maiolica in Italy and its subsequent success as a luxury good is important and must be explained. The knowledge of making maiolica spread from the Islamic world to Italy begins and interestingly begins with another form of pottery known as porcelain. Porcelain, with its strength and translucence, was much sought after by the Islamic empire and later the Western world. Porcelain was developed in China as early as 100 B.C., and the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century began exporting their porcelain goods to the Islamic world. In an attempt to imitate the very appealing qualities of porcelain, potters in Mesopotamia (now modern day Iraq, Iran, and Syria) attempted to create a similar type of ceramic. Although they were unable to achieve the strength and peculiar white opaqueness of porcelain with earthenware, the Islamic ceramicists did develop the technique of tin glazing which provided a white surface coating that was ideal for coloration. [i] The knowledge of this new technique spread across the Islamic world even as far as Moorish Spain. From southern Spain, the technique was soon learned by potters in the Christian region of Valencia, which quickly became a center of production for this new form of earthenware pottery. [ii] During the fourteenth century, Valencia exported its ceramics, with Hispano-Moresque decoration, to the rest of the Mediterranean world. In particular, these ceramics wares, with Islamic inspired ornament painted on the surface, were exported to the Italian city-states where it was becoming an increasingly popular commodity among the elite.
Italian merchants usually purchased the tin-glazed ceramics from the trading outpost of the Spanish island called Mallorca. At this point in the story, the derivation of the word “maiolica” can be explained. Thus, the name of the tin glazed pottery is a bastardization of the word “Mallorca” to “maiolica.” The potters in Mesopotamia wished to develop their own form of porcelain instead of importing it from China, and likewise Italian ceramicists desired to learn how to make their own maiolica and to compete from the foreign market. By 1500, the potters in northern and central Italy were successful in producing their own maiolica; in fact, they were so successful that the Italian version of maiolica eliminated the competition of Spanish imports not only in local Italy but elsewhere in Europe. [iii] In examining the Italian maiolica of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, one could argue that all that was left of the Hispano-Moresque influence was the term “maiolica” now used to describe the same product but made in Italy. However, while literally on the surface, maiolica was evolving into a Renaissance style of pictorialization as exemplified by the compendario style of the Maiolica Plate, the making of the tin-glaze continued nevertheless to be indebted to its Islamic and Spanish predecessors. Without the knowledge of tin glazing from the Islamic world, the Italian Renaissance development of maiolica would never have occurred. [iv]
Although Italy was now making its own version of maiolica, the potters were still dependent on foreign sources for the key ingredient of tin. Tin was the most expensive material for the making of maiolica since it had to be imported from England via Flemish merchants. [v] Aside from the calcareous clay body, the other materials that were used in the making of maiolica were the pigments for color. For the Maiolica Plate, the following pigments were needed for each color: blue/cobalt, yellow/antimony, orange/ iron rust, and green/copper. [vi] An excellent primary source for gaining insight into the production of maiolica in Renaissance Italy is Piccolpasso’s text titled Li tre libri dell'arte del vasajo or The three books of the potter's art (c.1547). Along with the descriptions of the various stages of making maiolica, Piccolpasso mentions that, “oft times of 100 pieces of ware tried in the fire, scarce six are good.” [vii] Nevertheless maiolica was relatively inexpensive during the fifteenth and sixteenth century when compared to the porcelain and rock crystal it was suppose to imitate. [viii]
While it can be said that maiolica would not have existed in Renaissance Italy without the previous technological advances of Islamic ceramics, it can also be said that maiolica would not exist without the Italian elite’s increasing interest and purchasing power for luxury goods. The Italian elite’s growing desire for aesthetically pleasing objects such as the Maiolica Plate is partly due to the humanist belief in the concept of “magnificence.” Magnificence was a virtue that promoted lavishness and was best conveyed through conspicuous consumption or as the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano stated: “The magnificent man proves his greatness in great expenditures.” [ix] This expectation to display one’s wealth in material form for all to admire greatly encouraged the development of the decorative arts including the maiolica industry. The culture of dining was an important way to express such magnificence by providing guests not only with fine cuisine but also serving the meals with beautiful tableware. Items like the Maiolica Plate were both utilitarian and decorative so that when not in use during the dinner service, the ornamented plate functioned as a work of art and was often displayed on the nearby credenza. In fact, by the late fifteenth century, maiolica was viewed as a category of painting. [x] A decorative plate was also portable which was favorable since all dining furniture was often moved from place to place. Thus, while the Maiolica Plate had the potential to be a practical piece of tableware, its surface decoration lended itself to be admired for its own visual sake. The Maiolica Plate as a whole is a hybrid of art and function making it truly a decorative art object.
The major inspiration for the revival of grotesque ornament during the late fifteenth and sixteenth century was the archaeological discoveries of ancient roman walls especially the Domus Aurera also known as Nero’s Golden House (64-68 AD). Even Raphael was inspired by the grotesque ornamented as demonstrated by his decoration of the Loggetta in the Vatican. Ancient Roman decoration found on surviving wall inspired Renaissance Italian decoration of maiolica and was called the compendario style. The Maiolica Plate exemplifies the traits of compendario style and is almost like a sixteenth-century predecessor of the twentieth-century I Spy book with its an unusual assortment of trophy decoration, fantastical creatures, classical sculpture, stylized foliage, putti, etc. This incongruous configuration of grotesque and classical motifs found on the Maiolica Plate, such as the organ pipes besides the head of a sea monster, evokes the irrational essence of Mannerism. In contrast to the emphasis on narrative in the other traditional themes for maiolica (history, religion, mythology) the compendario style is intentionally ambivalent. [xi] Such playful ambiguity would certainly promote conversation among the Italian elite with each educated person would demonstrate their knowledge of antiquity while attempting to decipher the hidden meaning behind the Maiolica Plate decoration.
During the early twentieth century, Bernard Rackham suggested that the Maiolica Plate was part of a set perhaps done by Giovannia Maria. [xii] Some of the other pieces can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the Ashmoleum in Oxford. [xiii] For example, the British Museum’s maiolica piece has a putto riding a bird in the center and a similar assortment of grotesques along the rim of the plate. The Maiolica Plate from the National Gallery and the plate from the British Museum are similar in size and shape and both even have a garland painted in blue on the reverse. However, while these plates are very similar in subject matter, with a playful putto in the center and a surrounding grotesque border with a blue background, that is where the similarities end. There are difference is coloration, the way in which the figures are painted, etc. Consequently, many scholars have rejected Rackham’s theory that all of these plates are a part of a single set by Giovanni Maria. [xiv] Rather, a more persuasive argument is that this specific type of Mannerist decoration was a popular form of the compendario style for maiolica decoration.
The compendario style of the Maiolica Plate embodies not only the Mannerist spirit but is also an example of how the artistic ingenuity of the Italian Renaissance was achieved by combining various sources of knowledge. In the case of the Maiolica Plate, this hybrid of knowledge ranged from mastering the ceramic tin glazed techniques of the Islamic world to the emulation of the grotesque ornament from ancient Rome. Maiolica potters were able to imbue their craft with these influences. Even in the twenty first century, the Maiolica Plate continues to serve as a conversation piece, but now the Italian elite have been replaced with scholars who continue to discuss the hidden meaning of the compendario style with all of its putti, trophies, and grotesques.
© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018
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[i] Ian Freestone and David Gaimster eds., Pottery in the Making: Ceramic Traditions. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 1.
[ii] An interesting twist to the history of Valencia is that it was a center for the ceramic industry since when the region was under the rule Ancient Roman rule.
[iii] Freestone and Gaimster eds., 116.
[iv] Catherine Hess, ed., Arts of Fire: Islamic influences on glass and ceramics of the Italian Renaissance (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), 4.
[v] Ibid., 27.
[vi] John Scott-Taggart, Italian Maiolica (New York: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1972), 61.
[vii] Julia Poole, Fitzwilliam Museum Handbooks: Italian Maiolica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 8.
[viii] Hess, 27.
[x] Freestone and Gaimster eds., 119.
[xi] The sense of irrationality, playfulness, and ambiguity of the grotesque figures from the Mannerist style of the Italian Renaissance is similar to the twentieth-century art movement called Dadaism.
[xii] Bernard Rackham, “A Maiolica Plate by Giovanni Maria,” The Burlington
Magazine for Connoisseurs 56 (193): 32.
[xiii] Dora Thornton and Timothey Wilson, Italian Renaissance Ceramics: A Catalogue of the British Museum Collection, vol 1 (London: The British Museum Press, 2009), 26.
[xiv] Distelberger, Rudolf et. al. Western Decorative Arts: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art, systematic catalogue, Part I (Washington D.C.: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 132.