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Renaissance Pottery & Ceramic Art - Majolica

It may be well now to turn from the Fine to the Industrial Arts, and to trace the manifestation of the revival in the designs of contemporary manufactures. From the unchanging and unchangeable nature of vitreous and ceramic products, no historical evidence of style can be more complete and satisfactory than that which they afford, and hence we have devoted three entire Plates (Nos. LXXVIII., LXXIX., and LXXX.) to their illustration. The majority of the specimens thereon represented have been selected from the "majolica" of Italy, on which interesting ware and its ornamentation we proceed to offer a few remarks.

Ornaments from Pottery at South Kensington Museum
Ornaments from Pottery at South Kensington Museum, Plate LXXVIII.

Ornaments from Pottery at Louvre and Hotel Cluny
Ornaments from Pottery at Louvre and Hotel Cluny, Plate LXXIX.

Ornaments from Pottery at Louvre and Hotel Cluny
Ornaments from Pottery at Louvre and Hotel Cluny, Plate LXXX.

The art of glazing pottery appears to have been introduced into Spain and the Balearic Isles by the Moors, by whom it had long been known and used in the form of colored tiles for the decoration of their buildings. The earthenware called "majolica" is believed to derive its name from the Island of Majorca, whence the manufacture of glazed pottery is supposed to have found its way into Central Italy; and this belief is strengthened by the fact of the earliest Italian ware being ornamented with geometrical patterns and trefoil-shaped "foliations" of Saracenic character (Plates LXXIX. and LXXX., Figs 31 and 13).

It was first used by introducing colored concave tiles among brickwork, and later in the form of encaustic flooring. The manufacture of this ware was extensively carried on between 1450 and 1700, in the towns of Nocera, Arezzo, Citta de Castillo, Forli, Faenza (whence comes faience), Florence, Spello, Perugia, Deruta, Bologna, Rimini, Ferrara, Pesaro, Fermignano, Castel Durante, Gubbio, Urbino, and Ravenna, and also at many places in the Abruzzi; but Pesaro is admitted to be the first town in which it attained any celebrity. It was at first called "mezza", or "half" majolica, and was usually made in the form of thick clumsy plates, many of large size. They are of a dingy grey color, and often have a dull yellow varnish at the back. The texture is coarse and gritty, but the golden and prismatic lustre is now and then seen, though they are more frequently of a pearly hue. This "half" majolica is believed by Passeri and others to have been made in the fifteenth century; and it was not till after that time that the manufacture of "fine" majolica almost entirely superseded it.

A mode of glazing pottery was also discovered by Lucca della Robbia, who was born at Florence in 1399. It is said that he used for this purpose a mixture of antimony, tin, and other mineral substances, applied as a varnish to the surface of the beautiful terra-cotta statues and bas-reliefs modelled by him. The secret of this varnish remained in the inventor's family till about 1550, when it was lost at the death of the last member of it. Attempts have been made at Florence to revive the manufacture of the Robbian ware, but with small success, owing to the great difficulties attending it. The subjects of the bas-reliefs of Della Robbia are chiefly religious, to which the pure glistening white of the figures is well adapted; the eyes are blackened to heighten the expression, and the white figures well relieved by the deep blue ground. Wreaths of flowers and fruits in their national tints were introduced by the followers of Della Robbia, by some of whom the costumes were colored, whilst the flesh parts were allowed to remain unglazed.

Passeri claims the discovery of this colored glaze at a still earlier date for Pesaro, where the manufacture of earthenware was carried on in the fourteenth century; but though the art of combining it with color may have been known at that early time, it had not attained much celebrity until 1462, when Matteo de Raniere of Cagli and Ventura di Maestro Simone dei Piccolomini of Siena established themselves at Pesaro, for the purpose of carrying on the manufacture of earthenware already existing there; and it is not improbable that their attention was attracted by the works of Della Robbia, who had been employed by Sigismond Pandolfo Malatesta at Rimini.

Some confusion appears to have arisen with respect to the precise process invented by Della Robbia, and looked upon by himself and his family as the really valuable secret. We feel little doubt that it consisted rather in the tempering and firing of the clay to enable it to burn large masses truly and thoroughly than in the protecting glaze, about which there appears to have been very little novelty or necessity for concealment.

Prismatic lustre and a brilliant and transparent white glaze were the qualities chiefly sought for in the "fine" majolica and Gubbian ware; the metallic lustre was given by preparations of lead, silver, copper, and gold, and in this the Gubbian ware surpassed all others. The dazzling white glaze was obtained by a varnish made from tin, into which, when half-baked, the pottery was plunged; the designs were painted before this was dry, and, as it immediately absorbed the colors, it is not to be wondered at that we so frequently find inaccuracies in the drawings.

A plate of the early Pesaro ware in the Museum at the Hague bears a cipher, the letters of which appear to be "C. H. 0. N". Another, mentioned by Pungileoni, has "G. A. T." interlaced, forming a mark. These instances are rare, as the artists of these plates seldom signed their works.

The subjects generally chosen were saints and historical events from Scripture; but the former were preferred, and continued in favour till the sixteenth century, when they were displaced by scenes from Ovid and Virgil, though designs from Scripture were still in use. The subject was generally briefly described with a reference to the text in blue letters at the back of the plate. The fashion of ornamenting the ware with the portraits of historical, classical, and living persons, with the names attached to each, was of rather later date than the sacred themes. All these subjects are painted in a fiat, tame manner, with little attempt at shading, and are surrounded by a kind of rude Saracenic ornament, differing completely from the Raphaelsque arabesques, which, in the latter years of Guidobaldo's reign, were so much in fashion. The plates full of colored fruits in relief were probably taken from the Robbian ware.

The decline of this manufacture caused by the Duke's impaired income and the want of interest in the manufacture felt by his successor, was hastened by the introduction of Oriental china and the increased use of plate in the higher and more wealthy classes; still, though historical subjects were laid aside, the majolica was ornamented with well-executed designs of birds, trophies, flowers, musical instruments, sea monsters, etc., but these became gradually more and more feeble in coloring and execution till, at last, their place was taken by engravings from Sadeler and other Flemings. From all these causes the manufacture fell rapidly to decay, in spite of the endeavours made to revive it by Cardinal Legate Stoppani.

The "fine" antique majolica of Pesaro attained its greatest perfection during the reign of Guidobaldo II., who held his court in that city, and greatly patronised its potteries. From that time, the majolica of Pesaro so closely resembled that of Urbino, that it is not possible to distinguish the manufacture of the two places from each other, the texture of the ware being alike, and the same artists being often employed in both potteries. As early as 1486 the Pesaro ware was considered so superior to all other Italian ware, that a protection was granted to it by the lord of Pesaro of that date, not only forbidding, under penalty of fine and confiscation, the importation of any kind of foreign pottery, but ordering that all foreign vases should be sent out of the state within eight days. This protection was confirmed, in 1532, by Francesco Maria I. In 1569, a patent for twenty-five years, with a penalty of 500 scudi for infringing it, was granted by Guidobaldo II. to Giacomo Lanfranco of Pesaro, for his inventions in the construction of vases wrought in relief, of great size and antique forms, and his application of gold to them. In addition to this, his father and himself were freed from all taxes and imposts.

From its variety and novelty, majolica was generally chosen by the lords of the Duchy for their presents to foreign princes. In 1478, Costanza Sforza sent to Sixtus IV, certain "vasa fictilia"; and in a letter from Lorenzo the Magnificent to Robert Malatesta, he returns thanks for a present of a similar kind. A service painted by Orazio Fontana from designs by Taddeo Zuccaro, was presented by Guidobaldo to Philip II. of Spain. A double service was also given by him to Charles V. The set of jars presented to the Treasury of Loreto by Francesco Maria II. were made by the order of Guidobaldo II., for the use of his own laboratory; some of them are ornamented with a portrait, or subject of some other description, and all are labelled with the name of a drug or mixture, The colors of these jars are blue, green, and yellow; about 380 of them still remain in the Treasury of Loreto. Passeri gives an interesting classification of ornamental pottery, with the terms made use of by the workmen to distinguish the various kinds of paintings used in ornamenting the plates, and also the sums paid to the artists by whom they were painted. He gives a curious extract from a manuscript in the handwriting of Piccolpasso, a "majolicaro" of the middle of the sixteenth century, who wrote upon his art; to understand which it is necessary to remember that the bolognino was equivalent to the ninth part, and the gros to the third part, of a paul (5½ pence); the livre was a third, and the florin two thirds of a petit ecu; and the petit ecu, or ecu ducal, two thirds of a Roman crown (now value four shillings and threepence one farthing).

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