Maiolica: history, function, and production

Maiolica is a form of Italian pottery made of tin-glazed earthenware that was popular from the 1400s to the 1600s. Maiolica can be distinguished by a white background that contrasts with the brilliant earth-tone pigments painted onto it. The tin glaze is a chemical mixture that acts as a base for paint by fixing it to the surface, giving maiolica pottery its unique white background. The presence of tin in a glaze makes the glaze less likely to run or blur when the painted ceramic piece is heated in a kiln. Artists took advantage of this quality and used tin glazes for making pottery with finely detailed, painted decorations, as seen in the image below. The tin glaze preserves colors incredibly well over time, so maiolica is unique in that its brilliant colors may appear just as they did when they were originally painted hundreds of years ago.
Dish with Cupid on a Hobbyhorse (Tondino), about 1510–1520, possible Urbino area, Venice, or Pesaro, Italy, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware, 15/16 inches high x 9 1/4 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.DE.116).
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Italian maiolica is not to be confused with majolica, which specifically describes 19th-century ceramic works that were made using the same techniques, primarily in England.

Origins of maiolica

Italian maiolica was developed during the Renaissance, beginning in the 1400s. The use of a tin glaze on ceramics was an innovation introduced to Italian artists via pottery imported from Spain. At the time, Spain was predominantly under Moorish rule, and much of the pottery being exported was what is referred to as Hispano-Moresque in style. The basin seen below is an example of Hispano-Moresque ceramics, combining Islamic and European elements of design. The name "maiolica" originated either from Majorca, the Spanish island port through which many of the Hispano-Moresque ceramics were imported to Italy, or from the Spanish term obra de Málaga, which refers to wares imported from Málaga, Spain.
Hispano-Moresque Deep Dish, mid-15th century, Valencia region, Manises, Spain, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware with copper luster, 19 1/2 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.DE.441)
Some maiolica works from the mid-15th century integrate design motifs that signify the pieces as distinctly Italian, as in the Peacock-Pattern Dish and the Jar with the Profile of a Young Man in the next section "How was maiolica made?" Both incorporate stylized naturalistic designs, with the jar also introducing portraiture as a design element. Some later maiolica works have more elaborate designs with figurative and narrative elements, as seen above in the Dish with Cupid on a Hobbyhorse and in the Basin with Deucalion and Pyrrha  in the last section "How was maiolica used?"

How was maiolica made?

We know much about how Italian maiolica was made during the Renaissance because of the writings of Cipriano Piccolpasso. He wrote three volumes on maiolica production entitled The Three Books of the Potter’s Art, published in 1577. Thanks to Piccolpasso, we are able to reconstruct contemporary methods of gathering and forming clay, making and applying glazes, and firing ceramic pieces, as demonstrated in the video Making Maiolica.
Peacock-Pattern Dish (Piatto), about 1470–1500, Deruta (probably), Italy, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware, 2 1/2 inches high x 15 3/8 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.DE.103)
Maiolica is made by first sourcing clay from the earth and kneading it into consistent mass to eliminate air. To begin forming the clay into a shape, also known as the process of "throwing," potters use a spinning circular platform. This device has a circular base which the potter controls by foot in order to keep a consistent speed. The potter centers the clay on the spinning wheel, exerting pressure by hand to form the shape of the clay object. Sometimes molds are used in order to duplicate an existing ceramic design like a plate. When throwing clay using a mold, the potter will first center the mold on the wheel, and then center the clay mass over the mold and press it into the mold. Potters sometimes rest their hands on a bar extended over the wheel in order to keep them steady while removing excess clay to make it uniform over the mold.
Once the clay is formed into the desired shape, it is fired in a kiln. A kiln is an extremely hot oven used specifically for hardening ceramics. Traditional kilns were heated with a wood-burning fire. Fires produce ash, smoke and gas, which can damage vessels. To avoid such damage, Renaissance potters would place fine vessels inside a special refractory clay container that better withstood extremely high temperatures.
Jar with the Profile of a Young Man (front and back), about 1460–1480, Deruta or Montelupo, Italy, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware, 9 inches high x 9 3/8 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.DE.102)
After the ceramic object is removed from the kiln and cools, it is coated in a white tin glaze. This creates the opaque white ground that maiolica is known for. Sometimes an artist’s fingerprints are visible in the white glaze, usually at the base of the ceramic object where it was held to dip into the glaze.
When the white glaze is dry, paint is added to the ceramic object. Renaissance potters were limited to mainly blue, green, and earth-toned pigments. When finished with the decoration, the potter fires the work a second time in the process known as the "gloss firing." This fuses the glaze and pigments to vessels, giving maiolica its distinct glass-like finish and preserving its bright colors.

How was maiolica used?

Cylindrical Drug Jar, about 1520–1530, Faenza, Italy, Emilia-Romagna, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware, 14 9/16 inches high x 4 15/16 inches in diameter (lip) x 6 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.DE.105)
The majority of maiolica produced during the Renaissance was intended for practical use. Tableware like plates, bowls, and jugs were quite common, as were tiles, inkwells, candlesticks, and devotional reliefs. Maiolica drug jars, like the piece at the left, were also commonly used to store herbs and medicines.
The majority of maiolica pieces that remain today are of fine quality. These high-end works, such as the elaborately decorated basin seen below, were typically used only for display or special occasions. This basin was possibly made by or in the workshop of Orazio Fontana, who was one of the most sought-after and innovative ceramicists active in mid-16th-century Italy. He helped develop a new genre of maiolica directly inspired by Raphael’s frescos, and this basin depicting a Greek mythological scene reflects the ornate style of many 16th-century maiolica wares. The unique qualities of maiolica production and design have allowed stunning examples of this form of decorative arts to survive since the Renaissance.
Basin with Deucalion and Pyrrha, about 1565–1571, Orazio Fontana or his workshop, Urbino, Italy, Europe, tin-glazed earthenware, 2 1/2 inches high x 18 1/4 inches in diameter (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.DE.539).
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