Medici porcelain is the most highly-prized of all European porcelains. The earliest successful European attempt at producing a translucent ceramic body, there are only about seventy extant documented examples. Manufactured under the patronage of Grand Duke Francesco-Maria de' Medici, the main production took place between 1575-1587 in what are now known as the Boboli Gardens, in the grounds of what was then the principal Ducal Palace, now known as the Palazzo Pitti.
The porcelain was the result of the efforts of Orazio Fontana, who decorated lot 142 in the present sale, and his brother Camillo, skilled maiolicari from Urbino; Bernardo Buontalenti, a craftsman of wide-ranging skills in the service of Grand Duke Francesco; and a mysterious Levantine, whose identity still remains shrouded, although he had perhaps learned the art of making 'fritware' from the Persian potters at the kilns of Isnik.
The composition of the ware is known to us today, having survived in the form of a manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Magliabecchiana in Florence. The clay was made up in proportions of 12:3, the first twelve parts including glassy materials, including white sand, frit and calcined flint, tin and lead, combined with three parts white clay from Vicenza and Ferrara (which contained kaolin). The resulting porcellaneous material was in truth more like a fritware or 'artificial' porcelain than the 'soft paste' it is usually described as being; this is particularly apparent in the somewhat granular appearance of the paste of the present example.
Forms for the wares were perhaps to Buontalenti's designs, and have strong stylistic resonances with the metalwork and maiolica of the High Renaissance, while this particular form of cruet, modelled as double joined flasks, is an ancient and traditional one still in use today. Decoration of the wares was, inevitably, strongly influenced by blue and white Chinese porcelain, which had been known in Italy as early as the thirteenth Century. The Florentine potters rediscovered the use of cobalt as one of the few colours to survive firing at the high temperatures required for porcelain manufacture. Native maiolica also inspired the decoration; the grottesche on the present cruet are strongly reminiscent of the maiolica from Urbino. A small proportion of the wares, such as the present example, had decoration outlined in manganese (two pieces have additional overglaze decoration in coloured enamels). Once decorated and fired, the pieces were then lead-glazed and fired again.
The strikingly granular appearance of the paste and the naive drawing of the present cruet suggest an early date within the short period of production. Furthermore, the gadrooned oval foot is a feature shared with the inscribed flask in the Muse du Louvre, marked PROVA , which is itself considered to be an early production. The two known dated pieces, the four-sided flask with the arms of Philip II of Spain, dated 1581 (in the Muse Nationale de la Ceramique, Svres) and the portrait medallion of Francesco de' Medici of 1586 (in the Bargello, Florence) are of an altogether more sophisticated nature.
Medici porcelain was relatively little-known outside Florence, because production was limited, and destined to the Ducal palaces, where it remained. In later centuries its significance was not properly appreciated, although at first its origins were correctly recognised. Inventories taken in 1587, 1721 and 1732 refer to the Medici porcelain respectively as 'nostrale, ordinaria, fatta a Firenze'; 'Porcellane ordinarie fatte in Firenze'; and to 'porcellana fatte in Firenze' (Marco Spallanzani, 'Medici porcelain in the collection of the last grand-duke', The Burlington Magazine, May 1990, pp. 316-320, and to which all following quotations refer).
These inventories record cruets of various types as being present in the Palazzo Vecchio and in the Villa of Artimino. To know whether this particular cruet is described is difficult to ascertain, as descriptions vary between documents. The inventory taken at the Villa of Artimino in 1735 refers to 'due ampolline di porcellana con sua boccucci e manichetti, simile, alti 1/5 per ciascuno' (that is, of a braccio, the Florentine cubit roughly corresponding 55 cm.). The 1721 inventory of the Guardaroba Medicea, which was in the Palazzo Vecchio, includes 'un vasetto di porcellana simile, che fa due corpi, con due boccucci' and below, 'due ampolle di porcellana simile, attaccate asssieme' (Spallanzani, op. cit., p. 320). Other cruets which survive today and which must relate directly to these descriptions can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (the most closely related in form to the present lot, though with differing decoration, and lacking its spouts; see G. Cora and N. Fanfani, op. cit., p. 79); a second in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth (Cora and Fanfani, ibid, p. 151) and a third in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Spallanzani, op. cit., p. 317, fig. 12).
That the Medici porcelain was later ascribed little significant importance is what eventually lead to its dispersal. Certainly by the 18th Century it probably seemed unfashionable when contrasted with the variety of new products from all the new European factories; in fact it must have been perceived as being stylistically antiquated and of limited practical use. The wares were relegated to store cupboards in the various Ducal households. When, in 1737, the last Grand Duke died without issue, his estates fell to the City of Florence. In 1772, the controlling Lorraine family rationalised the collections and while recognising the artistic importance of much of them, the decision was taken to sell much of the surplus Oriental and other porcelains at auction; this included the Medici porcelain. The sale catalogue describes a cruet included in the sale as: 'due ampolle di porcellana simile, attaccate assieme' (Spallanzani, op. cit., p. 320). This description fits the current example exactly, if one overlooks the addition of a metal mount, and may even refer to it directly.
If it is indeed the present cruet which is being referred to in that document, then it is a notable failure to mention the silver-gilt and gilt-metal mount, which is a distinctive (and undoubtedly later) addition. Judging by the workmanship, the mount is characteristic of the work of a Northern European silversmith dating from circa 1600. It is in character with the work of craftsmen such as Paul van Vianen of Prague or Christoph Jamnitzer of Nuremberg. Silverworkers of this calibre certainly worked at the Medici court. The question of exactly when this mount was added must, however, remain open to debate.
With the event of the 1772 auction, the entire collections of Medici porcelain were completely dispersed; of the three hundred pieces then in existence and included in the sale, most were to disappear altogether. In the succeeding century, the importance of the porcelain was almost entirely forgotten, though Nathaniel Rothschild correctly catalogued the cruet for his own inventory of 1903. Obscure references of course came to light from time to time to spark scholars' interests, eventually leading to the publication at Faenza in 1936 of Giuseppe Liverani's Catalogo delle porcellane dei Medici, which finally revealed the true historical importance of Medici porcelain.