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Italian And Spanish Maiolica
( Article orginally published July 1944 )
It is possibly incorrect to emphasize decorative forms in Italian maiolica when all of the pieces which great collectors seek were actually made as decorations, although they followed the forms of pieces for utilitarian purpose. We have chosen the title in reference to the shapes themselves, as being more decorative than the round plates which, although equally resplendent in their decoration, are limited to the simple, circular form. Many of the plates have aready been illustrated and discussed at length in The Complectt Collector by the eminent authority, Dr. William Suida.
Maiolica is earthenware covered with a coating of tin enamel on which designs in metallic oxides and sometimes lustre are executed. It is like the delft ware of Holland and the faience of France. The derivation of the term is said to go back to the old name for the island of Majorca, through which the ware was imported into Italy. This form of the name is used by the poet Dante, "Ira d'isola, di Cipri e di Maiolica." The period of greatest maiolica production covered almost a century, from about 1480 to 1570. In Spain some of it may be dated a little earlier, for Spain was brought closer to the Islamic traditions in pottery making through the presence of the Moors, and Hispano-Moresque pottery from Spain, as well as Syrian and other Near Eastern wares received direct from the Levant, played a great part in influencing the production of Italian pottery.
The Spanish pieces are generally assigned to Malaga and Valencia, although it is impossible to divide them exactly according to region. The Spanish pieces were generally decorated in metallic lustre and sometimes in deep blue or a combination of the two. The Italians did not immediately discover the secret of the lustre, and supplied its place with purple or orange-yellow.The Spanish piecs were imitated exactly by the Italian potters. It had a bulbous body, short neck, and a spout formed by pinching the clay between the thumb and forefinger of the potter. However, the decoration is typically Spanish, being formed of a design of fleurettes, or flowers, arranged in a series of overlapping segments, like fish scales, known as an irnbricated design. As in the case of Italian pieces, this Spanish pitchermany times had a coat-of-arms. These heraldic designs generally referred to a monasiic order or religious house or might be the arms of a private family. The pitcher form was one of the most varied in size of the potter's output, ranging from large pitchers and ewers about ten or twelve inches in height, down to little ones no more than four inches tall. Many pieces of pottery were made for use in pharmacies, which were frequently under the dispensation of the religious orders, but many were undoubtedly made for private use.
Among decorative pieces which followed the utilitarian forms are the drug jars. Such a type has long been known by the name of albarello, although Bernard Rackham of the Victorian and Albert Museum, who is a leading authority on this subject, prefers to list them simply as drug jars in his catalogue of the collection of that museum. He calls attention to the fact that their nipped-in form, which tradition says was suggested by the form of the segments of bamboo in which drugs arriving from the Orient were packed, is one which was actually employed because it was convenient for the hand to grasp the jar in removing it from the shelf. These drug jars have no covers but there is a flange at the rim which made it possible to cover the neck with parchment and tie it down securelv with a string, to protect the dried contents, herbs, leaves, seeds and roots, etc., from dust and moisture.
Many such jugs showed an inscription, with the name of a medicine. For instance the word Melissa was used on a jug of lemon balm. Lemon balm was used to increase energy. Another inscription one might find on a jug, fumiterre which would hold an herb. It was thought to be a remedy for fainting and dizziness and is still used in Europe for that purpose. The companion, showing a figure of a woman seated on a rock.
We have a great deal of first hand evidence about pottery making in Italy through the sixteenth century manuscript of Cipriano Piccolpasso of Castel Durante, who, although a military engineer, was also probably a decorator of pottery. His brother, Fabio, was a potter in Castel Durante also. His manuscript, called Le Tre Libri dell'Arte del Vasaio, that is, "the three books of the potters' art," tells how the clay was obtained and prepared, how the glazes and pigments were made, the kilns constructed and firing was done, and finally how the painting of the design was carried out. He includes drawings to show the various operations, such as the workshop of the decorators, where a group of men are seated on low stools in a studio where a number of drawings or prints are pinned on the wall. Each held the piece to be decorated supported with his left hand on his knee, and had conveniently by his side a number of brushes, for one brush could be used only for one pigment and could never be dipped in the various pots of color, a practice against which Piccolpasso warns specifically as destroying the purity of the color. With designs before him, the decorator copied or combined motifs from prints, or used conventional motifs of leaves, scrolls, and arabesques, which had been borrowed from Spanish or Islamic pottery and had become part of the tradition of his art. He used his colors so effectively and painted with such verve and assurance that the designs on Italian maiolica have taken their place among the finest expressions of Italian art.