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A failed experiment: Medici porcelain

Ewer (brocca), c. 1575–87, soft-paste porcelain, decorated in underglaze blue, 20.3 x 10.8 x 12.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker In the 1560s, the Grand Duke of Florence, Francesco I de’ Medici, started a ceramic workshop in Florence with the intent to produce true porcelain (Chinese porcelain). After more than 10 years of experimentation, the workshop was able to make a type of porcelain that we now call soft-paste porcelain, which is considered an inferior type of porcelain. The experiment had failed to replicate true porcelain, yet Francesco was immensely proud of his workshop’s achievements. Even if it was not of the same quality as true Chinese porcelain, the Medici porcelain was still a significant achievement in its own right. Francesco added the Medici mark (an F and a dome) to his porcelain, which he often gave as diplomatic gifts. These ceramics were very expensive to produce because they required so much wood to fire the kilns. They also represent Francesco’s interest in alchemy, the attempt to transform one substance into another. Many of the surviving Medici porcelain examples demonstrate how artists in Florence adapted and transformed the decorations found on Chinese porcelain exported from Jingdezhen and Iznik ceramics from the Ottoman Empire. Medici porcelain also often includes grotesques, which are decorative elements that had become popular in the Renaissance era with the rediscovery of the ancient Roman Domus Aurea (a palace of the Roman emperor Nero). Today, just over 50 examples of Medici porcelain survive. Terms and key ideas: Medici porcelain factory Francesco I de’ Medici soft-paste porcelain kaolin alchemy Chinese porcelain Iznik ceramics transculturalism. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a case that contains some of the rarest ceramics that have ever been made that come from Europe. - [Lauren] We're looking at what is called Medici porcelain, and it is all created under Francesco I de' Medici's rule of Florence. And in particular we're looking at a ewer. - [Steven] A pitcher. - [Lauren] That was made around 1575 that encapsulates a lot of the dynamic global connections that are occurring in the 16th century. - [Steven] When I look at this object, it looks precious, but it's actually much more precious than is immediately apparent. It's important to understand the patronage of Medici porcelain, because only somebody fantastically wealthy could have produced this. There is no gold here. There are no precious stones. And yet these are some of the most costly objects ever produced. - [Lauren] Francesco I de' Medici created what we call the Medici porcelain factory in the 16th century, and he was interested in alchemy. And so part of this factory was creating these alchemical transformations that we see here with ceramics. And in this case, what the factory was trying to do was replicate Chinese blue and white ceramics. - [Steven] There was an enormous appetite for Chinese porcelain in the Middle East and in Europe. These were precious and very fragile objects that had to be carried often over land. Very few of them made it to the West. - [Lauren] The wealthy family like the Medici family would have been one of the few families to acquire such luxury items. Francesco was clearly very confident about his factory's ability to master a Chinese porcelain making. - [Steven] In the 16th century, porcelain must have looked miraculous: the pure white surface of the kaolin, the clay, that fine perfect clear glaze covering this brilliant cobalt blue. It was unlike anything that Europe had ever produced. - [Lauren] What's really fascinating about this ewer is that it's not only trying to replicate Chinese porcelain in the blue and white color schema, but some of the decoration on it is actually copying Iznik pottery. - [Steven] Iznik comes from the Ottoman empire from what is now Turkey. - [Lauren] Iznik ceramics were also blue and white, because they themselves were trying to replicate Chinese blue and white porcelain. So you have this influx of different types of blue and white pottery from different parts of Asia coming into Italy, being acquired by wealthy families like the Medici to display their wealth. - [Steven] It's, I want to go back to that idea of alchemy. Was it possible to replicate true Chinese porcelain? That would have been every bit as valuable as being able to turn lead into gold. - [Lauren] Francesco tried hard to duplicate the process of making Chinese porcelain, although they were unsuccessful. For about 10 years they experiment with trying to make porcelain, but this is actually a different type of porcelain than Chinese porcelain. This is what is called soft paste porcelain. - [Steven] Perhaps the best way to describe soft paste porcelain is as an inferior copy of what is known as true or Chinese porcelain. It used different materials and it was fired at a lower temperature, although still at a very high temperature, at least by European standards. But there are other differences. It's not just that this is soft paste. Look at the actual forms. These pots are strange amalgams of Chinese, of Ottoman and of European influences. - [Lauren] We not only have the Chinese blue and white color scheme and the influence of Iznik pottery, particularly in the floral decoration, but we also have the influence of metalwork in the shape of this ewer. And we also havegrotesques, these groteschi that are very common in Italian Renaissance art at the time. - [Steven] Well, we refer to as grotesques, are decorative motifs that were painted by the ancient Romans and that had been rediscovered and were wildly popular in the 16th century. - [Lauren] When Francesco creates this factory, where you have these alchemical projects happening, where you have all these different influences appearing, it took about 10 years for them to produce the more than 50 examples that survived today. And many of them have imperfections. We see bubbles, maybe they're lopsided. This is not perfect porcelain. And yet the Medici, particularly Francesco, were incredibly proud of what they were able to produce because nothing like this had ever been made in Italy at the time. - [Steven] And those imperfections, I think, were overlooked simply because of the cost of production. It wasn't the clay that was expensive. It wasn't the glaze that was expensive. It was feeding the kilns that cost the money. - [Lauren] Francesco didn't keep all of these for himself. He often would give them as diplomatic gifts to other rulers like Phillip II in Spain, and others were incredibly impressed. Porcelain being such a desirable commodity. People were interested that Francesco's factory here could even attempt to create something similar to Iznik or particularly Chinese ceramics. - [Steven] So what we're seeing is this incredible intersection of various sophisticated Chinese ceramics by way of the Middle East, but here in Florence, in Italy. (soft piano music)