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Met Purchases Fine Spanish Lusterware
( Article orginally published August 1957 )
Spanish lusterware of the 15th and 16th centuries is on display at The Cloisters through the summer. More than sixty examples were shown, comprising the major portion of an important purchase concluded by James J. Rorimer, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. The lusterware greatly enriches the Museum's ceramic collections. Providing a full picture of the stylistic development of Valencian glazed pottery, especially of the 15th century, the exhibition Was arranged by Richard H. Randall, Jr., Assistant Curator of The Cloisters.
The collection, one of the finest in the world, was purchased for The Cloisters from the art holdings of the late William Randolph Hearst with fund's donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Both in technique and in forms, Spanish lusterware derives from Islamic glazed pottery, and is sometimes referred to as Hispano-Moresque. As early ias the 10th century the Moors in Spain had begun to copy eastern, examples, and by the middle of the 13th century Malaga in Andalucia had become famous, in Spain and abroad, as a center for the production of gold-lustered ceramics. By the beginning of the 15th century the hub of this flourishing industry had largely shifted to Valencia and neighboring towns. Spanish lusterware was by then so enormously favored that it was commissioned by the ruling houses of distant countries; at was allowed special import privileges by the Venetians and the Burgundians; and it was often depicted in the works of northern Gothic painters and Italian renaissance masters. At this Stage Valeneian glazed pottery was readily available in large quantities, and universally pleasing for its high standards of craftsmanship and for the shimmering quality of its luster. After 1450 it was rivaled by the growing popularity of table services made of precious metals. By the end of the century it had, begun to succumb to this competition and to that of the ceramics made in Italy and the north.
The majority of the pieces on display at The Cloisters are Valencian, the earliest dating from the third decade of the 15th century. Serving dishes, platters, plates, bowls, a tureen, jugs, a huge 7 1/2-quart pitcher, and albarelos (tall jars for keeping herbs and spices) are shown. Of special interest are a dining table, appropriately laid with lusterware, and a display sideboard, both reproduced from a 15th century Italian painted panel illustrating the Feast of Dido. Photographic reproductions of contemporary paintings and illuminated manuscript pages provide vivid illustrations of the widely fashionable use of lusterware from Spain. A panel board of photographs shows the basic steps in the making of glazed pottery.
In early vogue were Moorish designs of trees-of-life, palmettes, stars, geometric patterns and Kufic inscriptions. In the thirties and forties of the 15th century, other patterns, appeared: vine and leaf, bryony (a favorite of the Italian aristocracy), marguerites, and mixtures of these with acacia sprigs. Later the pattern of dots and stalks (sometimes called musical notes) became fashionable. No simple date order is possible for the appearance of various decorative styles, as many types were current at any given time.
Some of the vessels in the exhibition display a single large animal or bird spread across the surface of a dish on either obverse or reverse side; especially favored were the great heraldic eagle, the bull, the heron and the winged dragon. Toward the end of the century the practice of impressing the borders of dishes with a series of molded gadroons became prevalent. Eventually dishes and platters were enriched still further by ridged partitioning, in imitation of metalwork. and by patterns of raised knobs on their surfaces. Such exaggerated ornament made them impracticable for ordinary use and they came to figure mostly for display, arranged on racks near the dinner table.
The frequent appearance of heraldic shields on Spanish lusterware attests its widespread importance. The royal houses of Spain, such as Navarre, Aragon and Castile, were recurrent customers. Further afield are examples in the exhibition with the arms of the kings of Sicily and the wealthy Patrician families of France, Spain and Italy, especially those of Florence, such as the Medici, the Ridolfi and the Gentili. Of particular interest is the Coat-of-arms of the Buyl family, lords of Manises, where the major portion of Valencian pottery was produced. Their history is interwoven with that of the industry; each year they received a tenth of the production of the Manises kilns, which they undertook to sell themselves or through agents.
The Shimmering, iridescent quality of its glaze was the chief reason for the long popularity of Spanish lusterware, even in Italy where very fine competitive majolica was being made. Most often used conjointily with cobalt blue, the luster colors reflect a variety of metallic tones, ranging from golden yellow and pale copper to redish-browns, giving great richness to the vessels and continual variations in the play of light.
The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park is a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted to the arts of the Middle Ages.