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Mistress Dairine Mor o' uHigin, OL
Gael Stirler

The Art and History of Majolica

published in Chivalry Sports Catalog Issue T-02

Majolica or Maiolica as it is known in Italian is the quintessential expression of the Renaissance potter's art. Everyday objects like plates, jars, and pitchers were hand painted with robust classical borders, portraits, historic scenes and geometric designs similar to those found in illumination and tapestries. The colors used for the decoration on a white base glaze made of tin or lead oxide were limited to deep blue, brownish purple, copper green, warm yellow, and rusty orange yet they were used in bold combinations to evoke a much wider range of tones and hues. By the end of the 16th century black, scarlet red, bright purple, and grass green were available as well. Though painted pottery was made in many lands, Spanish Majolica was well known for its final lustrous coat of iridescent clear glaze. This took a secret process and required great skill to produce. Until the 16th century, Italians could not achieve the same lusterous finish so their painters concentrated on the beauty of the painting and clarity of the colors. Thus Italian Majolica came to be highly prized and imitated throughout the world. Wealthy patrons began to demand even more elaborate and artfully painted platters for display. These elaborate pieces were called Piatto de Pompa. Majolica with scenes from history, the Bible or Classical literature were called Istoriato and often included heraldic display of flags, armorial crests, and mottos.

The Origins

In the 10th Century the Calif of Persia received a gift of over 2000 pieces of porcelain from the Emperor of China. Persian craftsmen were amazed at the white and blue glazes. Thought they could not unravel the secret of the Chinese glazes they were able to invent their own techniques to duplicate the effect. The potters of Baghdad exported their wares all across Northern Africa and many Islamic potters migrated to Morocco and eventually Moorish Spain, bringing with them their secret methods and formulae. Merchants based on the island Majorca shipped so much of this pottery from Spain to Italy that it became forever associated with the island. After the Moors were thrown out of Spain, majolica potters set up small factories in Italy near the mineral rich banks of the river Metauro in the towns of Deruta, Gubbio, and Faenza where the finest clay deposits and minerals for the glazes were to be found in abundance. In the 16th century luster glazes similar to those used in Valencia and Talavera, Spain were developed in Umbria as well as metallic gold and a ruby red iridescent glazes.

Eventually Majolica crafters settled in many other parts of the world where the craft developed into new and distinctive styles. In Holland it became delicate blue and white Delftware, in Germany it became dainty Dresden porcelains. The French name reflected its Italian origin, faience after the city of Faenza, and in the New World it was called Talavera after the potters who immigrated to Puebla, Mexico from Talavera de la Reina, Spain between 1550 and 1570.

The Making of Majolica

A typical workshop could belong to a master potter or a wealthy absentee owner, according to Cipriano Picol Passo author of Li Tre Libre Dell' Arte Del Vasaio or "The Three Books of the Potters Art" (a. d. 1557). Il maestro or workshop manager was in charge of the bottega or pottery factory and kept the books, assigned tasks and acted as head salesman. The factory workers consisted of one foreman, two throwers, two or three painters, one or two kilnmen, and several assistants or apprentices. A piecework painter could average 600 or more pieces a month. Most of the craftsmen were paid by the piece and the best artists commanded the highest prices.

The first step in the process began with a lump of buff or brown river clay. Il Torniante, or the thrower masterfully shaped the clay on a wheel. The clay piece was referred to as in terra or greenware and was dried in the open air before it was kiln fired. The first firing was called the prima cottura and it brought the greenware to about 1750° Fahrenheit for several hours then cooled slowly to room temperature creating the biscotto or bisqueware. This long wood firing would still have the effect of firing in an electric kiln to cone 04 on the Orton scale.

Once completely cooled, a fast drying chalky liquid glaze made of lead and tin-oxide called il smalto was applied by dipping or brushing. When the glaze dried it was ready for the artist to freely paint la pittura on the chalky surface. An artist who had painted a design many times could quickly decorate the biscotto without reference or guide. However the more elaborate pieces were drawn on parchment and pricked to make a stencil that could be transferred to the bisque by pouncing charcoal dust through the holes. During firing the charcoal would burn away leaving no trace. The colored glazes used by the painter appeared to be ugly shades of gray and light blue until they were fired and a chemical reaction brought out the brilliant colors. It took years of observation and practice to master working with glazes.

In the final step the painted items were again loaded into a kiln for a seconda cottura at a temperature somewhat lower than 1750° F that would be the rough equivalent of cone 06. The final firing could take up to 24 hours including the slow preheating and a tempering or cooling off stage. If the pottery cooled too fast an entire kiln load could be destroyed. Since it was very difficult to load and fire a kiln before the days of gas and electricity most bottegas only fired their kilns once a month, so losing a whole kiln load was a costly tragedy.

Majolica Today

Majolica has been produced in Umbria, Tuscany, Sicily and other Italian regions for over 500 years by an unbroken line of master crafters. Many of the patterns are still produced exactly as they were in the time of Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, both of whom worked in Maiolica bottegas. This highly sought after ceramic ware can command prices of up to $1200 for a single piece by a famous artist. Most pieces run from $10 for a saucer to $700 for a large platter or apothecary jar. You can find Majolica in fine decorator shops or order direct from the manufacturers in Italy via the Internet. Here are several web sites where you can buy Italian Majolica.
www.derutashop.com by Geribi
www.artistica.com representing Tuscany and other regions of Italy
www.ceramic-art-shop.com Sicilian Majolica
www.fidiaderuta.com a huge site well worth visiting


National Gallery of Art, Italian Renaissance Ceramics Collection
The British Museum, search on Italian Maiolica
The Fitzwilliam Museum Maiolica Collection
Mary Schirmir's pages about Maiolica.
She is in the SCA, too.

Picture credits: The first three plates (Grotesques, Angles with shield, St. Michael and the Dragon) and the Lemon Vase are from Derutashop by Geribi. The tile is by Mary Shirmir of Mary's Maiolica. The fragment in the intoduction is by the author. Click on it to see the whole tile.

Go to Lesson 1: Making Majolica Sampler Tiles | Go back to Illumination Lesson 10: Initials

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© 2002-2004Gael Stirler, Inc. 1-520-721-8346
Unless otherwise noted all art is the work of Gael Stirler.
AKA Mistress Dairine mor o' hUigin, OL

This page was last updated Friday, 27-Mar-2009 15:54:54 CDT