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Among the momentous changes brought about by the Italian Renaissance was a growing desire for splendour and dazzlingly beautiful worldly goods. There was a renewed interest in the Ancient world, and the arts played a central role in proclaiming the elite as the refined and dignified heirs to the classical tradition. Magnificent possessions conveyed blatant messages about the wealth, power and cultural sensibilities of their owners, but importantly, they also conveyed their association with the perceived 'Golden Age' of Antiquity. This, together with an increased demand for sophisticated maiolica which was primarily beautiful rather than functional, transformed the potter's art from the latter part of 15th century onwards.
Patronage was a key element in the development of maiolica. The prosperity of pottery centres and their workshops fluctuated according to local political circumstances as well as changes in their clientele's taste. Tuscan workshops in particular flourished from the middle ages onwards, and in the latter part of the 15th century Faenza began to establish itself as the most innovative pottery centre. In fact Faenza's products were so highly regarded throughout Europe that the town's name became associated with all tin-glazed earthenware (the terms faience or fayence used on the Continent are corrupted forms of the name). Other centres became prominent at this time, such as Deruta, Gubbio, Cafaggiolo, Venice and Castel Durante1. But it was Urbino, under the patronage of the Dukes of Urbino, that dominated the production of accomplished maiolica from the second quarter of the 16th century until the end of the century.
The Court at Urbino was one of the most powerful in Italy, and it was also one of the most refined. Its focus, the Palazzo Ducale, was built by Federico da Montefeltro, Count of Urbino and later Duke of Urbino (from 1474 until 1482). Federico was an important patron of the arts, and his elegant court was a meeting place for great Humanist scholars. The palace housed one of the largest libraries outside the Vatican, and it was also the scene of Baldassare Castiglione's definitive account of Renaissance court life, Il Cortegiano (or The Courtier), printed in 1528. The ewer stand in this sale (lot 5) bears the coat of arms of Federico's son, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, who was Duke of Urbino from 1482 until the year of his death in 1508.
Maiolica was commissioned by the Papacy, Cardinals, Princes and wealthy families, but the beautifully decorated pieces that have come down to us were only a small part of what was produced. Humble every day functional pieces were produced in enormous quantities, but the majority of these have not survived as they were used regularly and were not held in the same high regard. The Black Death also caused a large portion of early pieces to be destroyed. It was thought that the wares carried the plague, so they were thrown away in pits or down old wells.
The extent to which 'up-market' refined maiolica was used is not absolutely clear. Contemporary accounts describe maiolica in use on dining tables or displayed on a credenza sideboard, but the apparent absence of a Renaissance drawing or painting showing this practise, together with the remarkable condition of many pieces, suggests that maiolica must have been used sparingly. The variety of forms created, such as bowls, plates, dishes, ewers and basins, cisterns, salts and inkwells to name just some, suggests functional purpose, but maiolica was probably still primarily for display purposes.
Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) is recorded as having used 'piatti di terra depinti a figure' (earthenware plates painted with figures) when he dined with his Cardinals.2 Wendy Watson suggests that the absence of extensive wear on many maiolica plates or dishes could in part be because 'fewer metal utensils were employed at the time. Personal forks did not become customary in Italy until after the mid-sixteenth century, and it was not unusual in polite company to convey food from plate to mouth with one's fingers'.3 When the Humanist poet Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503) sent out invitations to friends in the form of a Latin poem, he wrote: 'The table glows with pottery and so does the Maplewood credenza.4
Large basins or cisterns, like the Urbino example (lot 15) are thought to have been used to hold scented water, which was offered to guests at the table so their hands could be washed between courses, or they could also have been used to cool bottles. The coat of arms pressed into the wax seal collection mark on the underside of the foot of this example indicates that it was once in a Cardinal's collection. It is thought that the so-called bella donna chargers (see lots 9 and 11), which were often painted with a young woman's name, were given as tokens of love or affection, or were perhaps related to marriage. The studiolo, a room where precious and refined objects were displayed, could have also contained maiolica. A ceramic bust of St. John the Baptist was kept by Frate Francheschino da Cesena in his study,5 and perhaps the Faenza devotional plaque, of which a fragment survives (see lot 12) was once kept in a similar room, or possibly in a chapel or a bedchamber.
ISLAM AND EARLY INFLUENCES:
The technical achievements of the Moorish potters in Spain made an important contribution to the development of maiolica in Italy. In late medieval Italy, pottery was still of rather limited design and form, whereas the Moorish masters in Spain were already producing sophisticated wares decorated with dazzling lustres and powerful and accomplished designs derived from a blend of Gothic and Islamic motifs. These 'Hispano-Moresque' pieces, as they have come to be known, were held in extremely high regard, and again, appear to have been primarily for display. They were exported all over Europe, and in particular, to the wealthy and princely families of Tuscany, who often ordered them decorated with their coats of arms.6
At that time lustred Hispano-Moresque wares were called obra de málequa in Spain, and they were referred to as maiolica in Italy (one possible derivation of the word 'maiolica' is a corruption of the Spanish word). With time the term maiolica came to include lustred pieces made in Italy, and subsequently it encompassed all tin-glazed earthenware made in Italy.
By the middle of the 15th century Italian potters had developed a richer palette of colours to decorate their wares, and as their proficiency increased, so the trade with Spain began to dwindle. By the end of the century and beginning of the next, the palaces and households of the wealthy were becoming increasingly imbued with the decorative symbolism of the Renaissance, and these changes were echoed in the decoration of maiolica. The very Italian forms and newly fashionable decorative motifs of the Renaissance saw off Spanish competition, as the Gothic and Islamic inspired motifs of Hispano-Moresque pieces began to look rather old-fashioned. Improvements in understanding of colours and their firing and the ability to create lustred surfaces, helped to make these changes possible.
The application of lustre to wares was an art which had been perfected by the Moorish masters in Spain. Exactly how the technology of applying lustre was transmitted to Italy is unclear. Lustre is a thin metallic coating, achieved by applying silver or copper oxides to the surface of the piece. The oxides were reduced and fixed in place by an additional third firing, which this time required smoke to be introduced into the kiln by narrowing the air inlets and using damp or resinous fuel.7 A contemporary source, Cipriano Piccolpasso (discussed below) described the difficulties of firing lustred wares successfully, recording that the kiln spaces for such pieces were kept small 'because the technique is unreliable, so that often only six pieces out of a hundred come out well; but the technique itself is a fine and clever one, and when the pieces are good they seem like gold..'8
Another innovation from the Islamic world which was imparted to Europe was the albarello, a cylindrical storage jar with a flange at the top, over which a parchment or leather cover could be tied. Albarelli were used in apothecaries and monasteries for storing medicinal mixtures, either solid or viscous, and from about the middle of the 15th century the idea of decorating the alabarello with a label, indicating the contents, was introduced. Some were still produced without labels as the painted drug name 'restricted the freedom of the apothecary to change the contents of the vessel as circumstances dictated. On non-inscribed jars the nature of the contents was indicated by means of a label affixed to the side of the vessel, or, at a later date, by reference to a painted number'.9 As drug-jars frequently appear in paintings and manuscripts used as flower-vases, perhaps jars were created without labels for this purpose as well.
Drug-jars formed an important part of the pottery trade, as large quantities were ordered. The Florentine Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova placed a remarkably large order for about a thousand jars in the early 1430s. The trade was also fuelled by advances in medicine. During the 15th and 16th centuries physicians increasingly questioned the received wisdom of ancient medical texts, and there was a renewed interest to study and classify plant species and increase understanding of their medicinal properties. The physician Antonio Musa Brasavola wrote:
'Not a hundredth part of the herbs existing in the whole world was described by Dioscorides, not a hundredth part by Theophrastus or by Pliny, but we add more every day, and the art of medicine advances'.10
Botanical gardens for the specific study of plants and their properties were founded, principally near the early Universities; in Padua and Pisa in 1543, in Florence in 1545 and Bologna in 1567.11
The survival of a treatise written in about 1557 is of seminal importance for our understanding of the making of maiolica. The treatise, Li tre libri dell'arte del vasaio (The three books of the potter's art), was written by Cavaliere Cipriano Piccolpasso, under the patronage of Cardinal François de Tournon, who had visited Piccolpasso's native Castel Durante as a guest of the Duke of Urbino. The Cardinal died in 1562, and the work was never published as intended, but miraculously it survived in a single manuscript copy.12 The treatise contains detailed first hand observations and descriptions of the entire process of maiolica manufacture, from digging the appropriate clay, to glaze and pigment recipes to firing the pieces in the kiln, and the text is accompanied by illustrations. As techniques varied from place to place, the treatise cannot be taken as representative of all pottery centres, but it does provide modern scholars with abundant information.
Until the end of the 14th century the palette of colours available to potters was usually limited to green and manganese, as can been seen with the Tuscan jug (lot 1) in this sale. An important early development was the introduction by 1400 of a thickly applied blue, which was so thick that it was actually raised from the surface. The zaffera a rilievo was usually used to form oak leaf designs, but other elements were also incorporated, such as heraldic beasts. The Montelupo jar (lot 3) is a rare survival from of an important group of jars which use a more thinly applied blue, or as Galeazzo Cora calls it, a zaffera diluita. It also has the distinctive Ns below the handles, and marked in this way, this jar is part of a group which are the earliest documentary pieces in post-classical Europe.
Lot 2, the slipware bowl, was made with a very different technique. Incised slipwares were made throughout northern Italy, and the method of decoration involved coating the un-fired piece with a creamy pale-coloured slip before then scraping parts away to reveal the surface below. Once fired colour was then added, and after the application of a lead glaze, the piece was fired again. Incised slipwares are generally less ambitious in their concept and more conservative in their decoration than tin-glazed maiolica. The type of glaze used is also a crucial difference between the two, because the colours tend to run and blur when a tin glaze is not used. This bowl would have been fired upside-down on stilts in the kiln (the stilt-marks can still be seen on the interior) and the colours have run downwards during firing. When the bowl is placed on its base, the colours appear to run upwards.
If earthenware is initially covered with a coat of white glaze containing tin, then once fired it produces an opaque white 'canvas' for painters to decorate over, giving the colours a wonderful brilliance, but also helping them to be much more stable during firing. Unlike frescoes or other paintings and drawings of the period, the stability and permanence of maiolica's colours gives us a window from the 21st century directly onto the vibrant colours and designs of the Renaissance, unchanged from the day that they were created. Vasari commented on this quality. In his eyes Italian maiolica was achieving something new, and he considered it superior to the pottery made in Antiquity:
'It should be stated that, so far as we know, the Romans were not aware of this type of painting on pottery. The vessels from those days that have been found filled with the ashes of their dead or with other things are covered with figures incised and washed in with one colour only in any given area, sometimes in black, red or white, but never with the brilliance of glaze nor with the charm and variety of painting which has been seen in our day. Nor can it be said that examples of this kind might once have existed but that the decoration has been destroyed through age or burial, for ours resist bad weather and all else; and one might even say a burial of four thousand years would not destroy the painting.'13
Lustre played an additional and important decorative role in a few pottery centres. At Gubbio, Maestro Giorgio Andreoli lustred istoriato wares, adding further emphasis to elements of the design. Little is known of where he learnt the technique of applying lustre (or what his early work looked like before 151514), but perhaps this is because the secrets of lustre techniques were guarded very closely. His work must have been held in very high regard by Guidobaldo I, Duke of Urbino, as Maestro Giorgio was granted citizenship of Gubbio in 1498 by the Duke, along with exemption from taxes. Lustre was also mastered at Deruta (see lots 9 and 11). A contemporary source, who was perhaps not aware of Maestro Giorgio's work, noted:
'The earthenwares made here are renowned for being made to look as if they were gilt. It is such an ingenious technique that up to now no other workman in Italy has been found to equal them, although attempts and experiments have often been made. They are called Majorica wares..'15
THE ISTORIATO STYLE
The first really revolutionary departure of the 16th century was the introduction of figural subjects, known as the istoriato style. Entire surfaces of istoriato pieces were decorated with 'storied' mythological, historical or religious scenes, such as lots 13-17, 21 and 29-30 in this sale. By about 1515 early forms of istoriato maiolica were being made in Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches to the east, as well as Emilia-Romagna further north. Importantly, the introduction of figural scenes increased the role played by prints in the decoration of maiolica, allowing it to reflect contemporary developments in paintings and drawings. Courtly scholars were influential in the subjects depicted on services, often supplying Latin captions for the reverses, and it seems that instructions for the scenes depicted could be quite specific. Istoriato wares, perhaps more than any other, reflected the renewed interest in the Ancient world which was so central to the Renaissance, and possession of such pieces not only conveyed the owner's wealth, but also their social refinement and familiarity with ancient texts.
The type of istoriato decoration developed at Urbino and nearby Castel Durante in the 1520s and 30s began to spread to other areas as painters left these centres in search of work elsewhere. Piccolpasso records that master painters from Castel Durante were working as far afield as Antwerp, Lyon and the Ionian Islands, as well as closer to home in Venice and Pesaro. Some Duchy of Urbino painters maintained workshops in more than one location, such as Francesco di Piero, who had a workshop in Venice as well as in his native Castel Durante. A dish in this sale, lot 17, was painted by Sforza di Marcantonio, a painter who is known to have moved from Urbino to Pesaro. Sforza is a good example of how stylistic leanings could be transmitted from one location to another. He worked closely with Xanto at Urbino, arriving at Pesaro no later than 1548,16 but the influence of his master's style can be seen in his work at Pesaro.
INSPIRATION FOR DECORATION
The majority of istoriato subjects were derived from prints which had been copied from frescoes, paintings and even other prints. Some painters were more reliant on prints than others for their inspiration; sometimes whole parts of prints were borrowed with little interpretation, but other times single figures or even parts of single figures were borrowed and then reassembled with other parts to form new images. The painter's imagination was therefore responsible for much of the innovation, as well as being the glue with which to innovatively reassemble different pictorial elements. The painter Xanto was particularly remarkable in this respect, collecting an extraordinary visual repertoire from which he drew inspiration, re-using elements in amazing and completely unexpected combinations.17
Popular prints were used repeatedly, but in spite of this the results were always different and individual. For example, the decoration of the Urbino plate in this sale, lot 14, is very clearly derived from the central scene of Neptune calming the seas in Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving Quos Ego after Raphael, and although the interior of the following lot, the Urbino cistern, is decorated with a scene featuring Neptune which is partially adapted from the same print, the results are very different. Prints could also continue to be used for many decades or centuries. The plaque (lot 56) showing Lucretia's suicide, for example, is closely derived from Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after Raphael, and yet the plaque was made well over a century later.
Prints were not the only source material for maiolica artists. As Timothy Wilson points out, occasionally bronze medals were used as sources; 'in their representation of favourite subjects, like Diana and Actaeon, or Apollo and Daphne, the maiolica painters could draw on the iconographic language shared not only by painters and graphic artists, but by the makers of plaquettes and medals, nielli and engraved gems, furniture-makers and book-illuminators'.18 Certainly whatever source was used, the ceramic product that resulted was a new work of art, and in many cases it was rather more sophisticated than the original source.
The central medallion of the Urbino charger (lot 35) is particularly interesting, because it is almost certainly derived from a drawing by a major artist, Taddeo Zuccaro (or his younger brother Federico), rather than from a print. In 1560-62, Taddeo Zuccaro submitted designs for a service which was to be given to the King of Spain as a diplomatic gift, and it is possible that a drawing submitted for this service could have been re-used for the central medallion of this charger.
There are other instances of artist's drawings being used for maiolica decoration, but very few are known. The earliest examples known are four maiolica plates thought to have been made at Faenza which are derived from a drawing attributed to Jacopo Ripanda (derived from a fresco in Siena by Girolamo Genga). Drawings by Battista Franco, who worked intermittently for Guidobaldo II, Duke of Urbino, between circa 1545 and 1551, were used at Urbino for a major service depicting scenes from the Trojan War. Other services with a single unifying theme may have also have had the involvement of a major artist, such as the service decorated with grottesche and scenes from the Romantic story 'Amadis of Gaul', but this has yet to be established.
'GROTESQUES' FROM ANTIQUITY
From the 1550s a new style began to gradually replace the istoriato style in popularity. Figures and references to Antiquity remained, but these scenes were reduced in size and incorporated into medallions or panels which were set against painterly white-ground surfaces which were covered with grotteschi. The grotteschi style was derived from decorative Roman wall paintings which had been discovered in subterranean ruins known as grotte (and in particular those found in the remains of Emperor Nero's 'Golden House'). Although other artists had experimented with early forms of grotesques, it was Raphael's decorative grotteschi schemes for the Vatican which had the most impact. The Faenza plate (lot 10) uses an early form of grotesques on the border, but it took further decades for the white-ground grotteschi style to be established. Prints with various forms of grotesque decoration were distributed widely, and by the 1560s the style had really taken hold in Urbino, and it seems particularly in the workshop of Orazio Fontana. Some of the grotteschi on lots 35 and 36 appear to have been derived from engravings by Jacques Androuet Ducerceau, the French architect, designer and engraver, published in his 1562 edition of Petites Grotesques.19 Lots 35-43 are all decorated with white grounds enriched with grotesques, and this group illustrates how the style evolved over time, dominating the stylistic output of central Italian worshops well into the following century.
1. Shortly after the last Duke of Urbino's territories had passed to the Papacy, Castel Durante was renamed Urbania by Pope Urban VIII in 1636.
2. Spallanzani, 1994, p. 129, quoted by Watson, Italian Renaissance Ceramics, From the Howard I. and Janet H. Stein Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Museum Catalogue (Philadelphia, 2001), p. 152.
3. Wendy M. Watson, ibid., p. 151.
4. Giovanni Pontano, Carmina, Ecloghe, Elegie, Liriche, ed. J. Oeschger, Bari, 1948; Eridanus, XL, p. 413, line 11, quoted by Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue, Art in Renaissance Italy (London, 2004), p. 223.
5. Dora Thornton, The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy (New Haven and London, 1997), pp. 84-85, referred to by Wendy Watson ibid., p. 169.
6. See Timothy Wilson, Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance (London, 1987), pp. 28-34; Marco Spallanzani, Maioliche Ispano-Moresche a Firenze (Florence, 2006) and Anthony Ray, Spanish Pottery 1248-1898, with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 2000).
7. See A. Caiger-Smith, Lustre Pottery: Technique, Tradition and Innovation in Islam and the Western World (London, 1985).
8. Quoted by T. Wilson, ibid. (1987), p. 103.
9. Rudolf Drey, Apothecary Jars (London, 1978), p. 28.
10. Examen omnium simplicium medicamentorum, published in 1536, quoted by Helena Attlee, Italian Gardens (London, 2006), p. 41.
11. The idea spread across Europe with botanical gardens established at Leiden in 1587, Heidelberg and Montpellier in 1593, Oxford in 1621 and Paris in 1626.
12. Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
13. Vasari-Milanesi, VI, pp. 581-582, quoted by Timothy Clifford and J.V.G. Mallet, 'Battista Franco as a Designer for Maiolica' Burlington Magazine, June 1976, No. 879, p. 388.
14. The first dated piece attributed to Maestro Giorgio's workshop is dated 1515, and a few years later a MoGo signature was used.
15. Leandro Alberti, in his Description of the Whole of Italy (1550), quoted by T. Wilson, ibid. (1987), p. 91.
16. See J.V.G. Mallet, Xanto, Pottery-painter, Poet, Man of the Italian Renaissance Wallace Collection Exhibition Catalogue (London, 2007), p. 36.
17. For a full discussion of Xanto's work, see J.V.G. Mallet, ibid (2007).
18. T. Wilson, ibid (1987), p. 114.
19. For a discussion of Ducerceau's engravings and their relationship with maiolica, see Christopher Poke, 'Jacques Androuet I Ducerceau's "Petites Grotesques" as a source for Urbino maiolica decoration' Burlington Magazine, June 2001, No. 1179, pp. 331-344.
Other developments that occurred in parallel to those above, at Venice for example (see lots 18-28), and the stylistic changes that followed until maiolica was eventually surpassed in popularity by the arrival of porcelain in the 18th century, are too numerous for inclusion here.
THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN