Even if you are buying the cheaper memento-ware, it helps to know what youâre looking at.
The defining characteristic of this kind of pottery is the white background onto which all the other colors are painted. It originated in the Middle East -- the earliest identifiable samples are from Baghdad -- in the late ninth or early tenth century, and most Majolica experts believe it was a local imitation of the expensive white Chinese porcelains that were beginning to enter that market about then. The Middle Easterners particularly liked the Chinese blue geometric and floral patterns: blue was a color associated with Fatima, Mohammedâs daughter and his only child who survived him, and the geometrics and florals conformed with the Islamic prohibition against human images. These blue wares spread through the Islamic world, across North Africa and into Islamic southern Spain first as trade goods and then as locally produced copies, some of them better than the Baghdad wares.
By the 11th century, the Spanish had figured out the secret of the white base coat -- a little tin in the slip and never raise the temperature above 1,200 degrees -- and by 1300 were exporting their own white pottery. Their ships usually stopped at Majorca, and that island was the entrepot where Italian wholesalers bought lots of "Majorca" pottery. Getting from "Majorca" to "Majolica" was an easy linguistic slide for the nimble-tongued customers back in Italy. The Spaniards had added a few more colors to the palette for the foreign market.
In short order the technology followed the product to Italy, and Majolica was being made in Umbria where fine reddish and chalky clays are found in abundance. The first Umbrian attempts (called "Archaico") used the still limited Spanish color schemes and very simple designs. These were followed by the "Severo" style, still very rigid in design and coloration in the early 15th century -- this was, after all, the age of Gothic design. In neither of these styles were the Italians able to reproduce the metallic Majolica "Lusterware" that was being made in the Middle East and Spain.
Somewhere along the line, Italian entrepreneurs brought in some Arab experts -- possibly from Sicily -- and, with their contribution, the "Beautiful" style, which is still in production, emerged in the middle of the 15th century. Majolica painters used a wider range of colors and slowly abandoned the Moorish (North African and Spanish) and Gothic patterns and moved toward a much more pictorial style. Several totally new themes were added, reflecting the new Renaissance interests of patrons, including "istoraito", which illustrated historical events or persons, "pittoresco", depicting rural or urban landscapes, and the ever-popular "erotico". Maiolica was clearly evolving from merely utilitarian products to items of luxury and high (and base) art. Noble patrons established and sometimes even worked in studios where Majolica artists produced fine plates, bowls, ewers, and platters that were meant for ostentatious display (or private enjoyment, if it was "erotica") rather than for any practical use. Collections of "piatti da pompa" -- show plates from the best studios -- gave noble and merchant families serious bragging rights.
The great bulk of the utile pottery made in the Umbrian towns was also majolica (with a small "m"), but it was a whole different class of goods than what was produced for the mantels of the nobility and later for the bourgeoisie. "Small-m" majolica is what you will still find heaped in street stalls in Deruta and other Umbrian centers. Some boutiques in town have higher quality pieces.
There are, of course, other Majolica traditions. There are still notable white-slip pottery workshops in all Middle Eastern cities. The North African and Iberian kilns are still going strong. Delft wares still pour out of factories in and around Delft in the Netherlands, and "Delft pattern" is made all over England and Ireland. French "faience", named after the Umbrian town of Faenza, from where it was copied, is heavily marketed. To be sure, Majolica took a serious tumble when Chinese porcelain was finally reproduced in the West, but there is still a big and, recently, growing market for painted pottery.
For whatâs on the majolica (small "m") market, visit almost any Umbrian town, but especially Deruta or Gubbio. Hints: Don't buy if the white background isn't really white -- new majolica shouldn't be off color. Dont buy if you can see the orange or chalky clay of the basic pottery piece showing through anywhere. Don't buy if the outer glaze is chipped or cracked -- a network of fine cracks is expected on an old piece of pottery, but not on new stuff. Also see if you can scrape off any of the clear outer glaze with your fingernail -- some unscrupulous potters just use layers of paint and lacquer rather than using metallic oxides for color, coating with clear slip, and refiring.
Before you buy, you should do two things: first, make your decision about whether you want to buy serious Majolica (big "M") or memento-ware majolica (still beautiful, but definitely small "m"). Second, study up on whatâs in the market place.
There are several good internet starting points:
|History and Processes:|
|Whatâs on the Majolica (big "M") market -- a representative on-line seller. No recommendation is implied. These are simply the best pix I found:|
The Umbrian process is particularly well documented because of a serious 3-volume "how-to" manual, I TRE LIBRE DELL'ARTE DEL VASAIO (The Three books of the Potterâs Art), that was written in around 1557 by Cipriano Picolpasso. With only minor translation, i.e., from 16th century to modern Italian, it could be a handbook for all aspects of the Majolica ware system. For info on the book and the man, go to http://home.vicnet.net.au/~claynet/moon.htm.
P.S. 1: A large fragment of a fine "severo" piece is in the vitrine inside the lobby of the American Embassy.
P.S. 2: For an extensive typography of what was produced in a typical large urban Roman factory during the introduction and subsequent Italian Majolica phases, visit the Crypta Balbi Museum on Via delle Botteghe Oscure. The Museum is on the site once occupied by the factory.