About Italian Ceramics
In this section:
The name “maiolica” (majolica) comes from the Spanish island of Majorca where ships carrying lusterware from Valencia stopped on their way to Italy. By the 1500s in Italy the term had broadened its’ meaning from lusterware to ‘tin glazed earthenware.’
Italian maiolica was first produced around 1350. Maiolica is an Italian earthenware with an opaque white tin oxide glaze. Its most outstanding feature is the beautiful, colorful decoration which never fades or loses its beauty. Maiolica is usually associated with the Renaissance when it hit its aesthetic peak, but it had been produced in Italy since the 13th century and is still produced today.
Early maioliche was decorated in just two colors: manganese–brown and copper-green. Between 1350 and 1460 improvements were made in kilns and glazes which established the polychrome decoration that is now associated with Renaissance ceramics.
By the 16th century maiolica painters imitated frescos and oil paintings, aided by prints and book illustrations. They began decorating with scenes from classical history, the Bible and mythology. This type of decoration is known as istoriato or historiated maiolica. After the 16th century istoriato scenes were complemented around the ware’s rim or exterior by fanciful designs that came to be known as grottesche or grotesques. The word is derived from the rediscovery of the Golden House of Nero in Rome. Its underground chambers or grotte, were painted with these elaborate, whimsical motifs and the word stuck. Raphael’s use of grottesche in his paintings for the Vatican Loggie made them especially popular and they were, and continue to be, recreated in ceramic production. This pattern is widely know today as Raffaellesco.
By the end of the 15th century, small towns had become renowned for their high-quality maiolica and had developed distinct styles. Some were larger cities, such as Siena, but there was a tendency for them to be small towns whose market was a large nearby city to which they were politically affiliated. Two prominent examples were Deruta, near Perugia and Montelupo, near Florence. Both of these towns are located along the riverbanks where there are natural clay deposits, perfect for the production of maiolica – the Tiber in Umbria and the Arno in Tuscany. By the 16th century some of the maioliche towns developed export trade to the rest of Italy and Sicily and northern Europe. The popularity of Italian maiolica grew with inclusion in religious houses, pharmacies, secular building, tableware for the well-to-do and devotional objects. The church of Madonna dei Bagni near Deruta still has over 600 maiolica votives (plaques offered to the Madonna asking for saintly intervention), dating from the 17th century to the present.
By the 17th century the demand for maiolica was in decline. Some of the older centers disappeared while new centers came to the fore, including Bassano in the north, Naples in the south and Palermo and Caltagirone in Sicily. The decorative styles of the Renaissance were often replaced by styles which harmonized with the fashion of the times. By the 18th century there was increasing competition from French and German Faience, Oriental and European porcelain (including Italian) and English creamware. During the early 19th century there was further decline in production, but by the middle of the century a renewal of interest in Renaissance art revived production of maiolica in Florence, Deruta and Faenza, to name a few places. This lasted for a few decades, but by the mid 1800s the Italian ceramic centers of maioliche suffered an acute market crisis brought on by an increased demand for porcelain or cheaper earthenware. The artistic and technical skills once prevalent in towns like Deruta were all but lost. Where there once were hundreds of maioliche workshops, by the 1850s only a handful were left.
In Deruta in the 1880s to 1900 a movement was started to re-establish Deruta and other Umbrian towns to the forefront of maiolica design and production. In 1900 a ceramics museum was created to promote historical and cultural research. The museum was founded with the aim of serving the artists of Deruta and the history of Deruta. In 1903 the Communal School of Design was set up with the primary goal of training craftsmen in the traditional techniques. They wanted to recreate the antique and traditional types of production and imitate Renaissance styles. Due to the creation of the museum and school, Deruta today is one of the leading exporters of fine Italian maioliche.
There are some wonderful ceramic museums in Italy that show the progression of technical improvements and artistic skill. Check out these links:
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In Umbria, the Museo Regionale delle Ceramica Deruta
In Tuscany, the Museo Montelupo
In Veneto, Le Ceramiche di Nove e Bassano
The basic raw material, red clay or chalky clay, was dug from river-beds or pits, impurities were removed and the clay was kneaded before being thrown on a potter’s wheel or pressed into plaster molds. Complicated forms were made in more than one section and were assembled using slip (a form of liquid clay) to make the parts adhere. The first firing was in a wood fuelled brick kiln at 1000 degrees centigrade. After removal from the kiln, the items were ready for glazing. They were dipped in a tin glaze or “bianco” (white). After drying, a powdery white coating developed on the surface and the items were then ready for painting. The colored glazes were made from metallic oxides: cobalt for blue, copper for green, antimony for yellow, manganese for purplish-brown and tin for white. The painters sat at tables with pots of pigment and painted the now white pieces using animal-hair brushes. The painting had to be perfect because the pigment sank into the glaze and mistakes could not be corrected. Furthermore, the pigments did not appear in their true colors until they were fired, so it was difficult to get an accurate sense of the finished product. The technical skill needed to paint on these wares inspired great pride and some ceramicists signed their vessels with their names, initials, workshop or city, at a time when few painters or sculptors did the same. When the painting was complete the pieces were fired again at a slightly lower temperature. Many of the basic techniques are the same today with a few modern advancements.
The potter throws the shape on a potter’s wheel or presses it into shape using a mold.
Throwing the pot
Applying handles with "slip"
Perfecting the shape
|The final piece is called “green ware”. It is left on racks in the open to dry until the color changes from a greenish-gray to a light-gray color.|
|When dry, the piece is put into the kiln for its first firing at 1890 f. At this stage, after the first firing, the item is called bisque and the color changes to terracotta red.|
|After the piece is cooled the bisque is dipped into a liquid glaze called “primo bianco”.|
|The artist paints the desired decoration on the white surface.|
|The design is either painted freehand or with the use of a type of stencil. This stencil is a thin piece of paper with small holes punched out along the edge of the design. The artist lays the design on the piece and then gently taps it with a “spolvero” a bag of charcoal dust that marks the design. The glazes used to paint the decoration do not appear in their true colors, making it very difficult to paint the finished product.|
|The final step is the second firing at 1690 f and takes up to 24 hours.|
If you have always wanted to try it yourself, there is now a school of ceramics in Deruta. They offer courses that are designed specifically for the student. You can learn to paint without laboring over a potter’s wheel!
Each piece of pottery is individually handmade. This means that there are never two pieces exactly the same. There are always some minor variations. This shows the hand of the artist and does not deflect from the value of the piece. It actually adds to its charm. Scan a piece of hand painted pottery and you might find a partial fingerprint, a small speck of paint out of place, a slight smudge in the glaze, or a loose fitting lid - evidence of handcrafted work and part of what makes it unique.
With repeated use, majolica has a tendency to “craze” (form tiny lines in the glaze). This has no effect on the durability of the item. There are ways to help minimize crazing. Always avoid drastic temperature change. Ceramic has a tendency to absorb cold. If you place hot food on a cold platter it may craze or even break. Running warm water over the piece before filling it with food will protect it from breaking. You can also place a metal spoon in your mug or teapot when pouring in hot liquid. The metal will absorb the heat, thus protecting your ceramics.
Maiolica can go in the dishwasher, but we recommend hand washing. If you want to use your dishwasher, use the “fine china” setting or low energy. Be sure to load the items with enough space between them so that they wont hit together.
Our ceramics are food safe. They have met with FDA standards and are approved for use with food.
Maiolica should not be used in the conventional or microwave oven. The microwave oven tends to heat up the ceramic and not the food or liquid.
Dipinto a mano
"Dipinto a mano" is Italian for "painted by hand". You will sometimes see this inscription on handcrafted Italian ceramic pieces. However, the lack of this inscription does not mean the piece is not painted by hand. Many fine, handmade, hand-painted Italian ceramic pieces have just "Italy" or "Made in Italy", or maybe just the name of the import company or of the manufacturer, and sometimes no insignia at all -- though this is typically just an oversight. In short, the best way to ensure that an item is a piece of authentic, handmade Italian ceramic, is to purchase from a reputable import company, outlet or retailer.