In the 15th century, Italian artisans drew inspiration from the Islamic tradition of glazed earthenware pottery to transform humble ceramic objects into eye-catching works of art. Showcasing uniquely Italian designs, the artists leveraged these existing techniques to create their own aesthetic. Now known as Renaissance maiolica, the art form flourished through the 17th century in centers like Florence, Naples, Pesaro, Faenza, Rome, and Deruta.
The term maiolica refers to painted and tin-glazed earthenware pottery. During the time of the Renaissance, tin was a particularly expensive material, as it had to be imported from abroad, making maiolica pottery a prized commodity. Large workshops, led by a master potter, would feature a number of highly specialized workers dedicated to specific tasks like gathering fuel for kilns, preparing and firing the kilns, preparing raw clay, throwing or molding the designs, glazing, and fine decoration using ceramic pigment, further adding to the expense of maiolica for the consumer.
From a technical perspective, the use of tin was pivotal in allowing artists to create the precise decorative patterns that are now so iconic. Compared to previous alternatives, the tin present in a glaze makes the colors less likely to blur or run when fired in a kiln, and so this new advancement allowed artists to paint ceramics with fine detail. Secondarily, tin glaze, without the presence of additional pigment, becomes pure white when fired, which lends maiolica pottery its signature white ground. The pottery would then be painted with a design and fired a second time to seal the design.
In early examples dating to the 15th century, decorations primarily appear in a purple-brown (derived from manganese), green (from copper), and blue (from cobalt). Over time, artists skilled in maiolica also began to experiment with different pigments to add increased detail and depth to their pottery. By the 16th century, yellow, brown, and red decoration became popular as well.
Each object was decorated according to its purpose and would bear signature motifs of the workshop or town from which it originated. The intricacy of the design would be dictated by the purpose of the piece and the wealth of the commissioner. Less expensive pieces produced for a popular market might bear designs based on prints or drawings, while the most expensive would feature custom designs from the Bible or mythology, family crests, and in some cases, portraits. Because of the immense popularity and desirability of maiolica, examples exist ranging from dishes to storage jars, wine coolers, ewers, candlesticks, inkwells, and, in some rare instances, pure sculpture.
Truly functional objects like apothecary jars might feature purely ornamental designs. This pharmacy jar, for example, bears an inscription of the medicinal substance contained within—in this case, water of the bugloss plant—complemented by a striking ornamental peacock-feather design, signature to the town of Pesaro where it was likely made.
Alternately, a wealthy patron might commission an elaborately decorated birth set for his pregnant wife. At the time, the gift of birth sets or dishes, decorated with religious and mythological scenes, was thought to be good luck in ensuring the birth of a healthy child for pregnant women or women hoping to become pregnant. This example is part of what would have been a larger complement of nesting bowls and dishes celebrating the miracle of childbirth. Although no complete set currently survives, the set would have comprised five interlocking pieces: a footed broth bowl with cover, a drinking cup, a saltcellar, and a lid. When assembled, they would form a single unit. The exterior of the piece shows the hunter Actaeon transformed into a stag by the goddess Diana, while the interior scene features a mother in her bedchamber with her infant and two female companions. Purely devotional objects, like this plaque with The Madonna and Child, could also be displayed in a domestic setting to encourage devotion in an intimate setting.
Wealthy male suitors were known to give gifts of maiolica, often bearing portraits of beautiful women accompanied by inscriptions about beauty, to their betrothed. Lovers also exchanged maiolica as gifts, including simpler designs like this elegant vase featuring the inscription non te posso lassar (“I cannot leave you”) on one side and an arrow piercing a heart with blooming flowers on the other. The decorative handles and shape of this design indicate it was likely intended as a purely ornamental object. More luxurious examples, such as this dish, portray images of the couple themselves.
Istoriato or “story painting” also emerged as an important style of maiolica painting. Istoriato refers to not only the painting of stories, but also the subject matter borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology. During this period, only the upper classes and clergy would have been literate, so the imagery, like this scene from the Aeneid depicted on an elegant bowl, spoke to their interests in Latin and Greek texts.
The Met is home to a world-renowned collection of maiolica, dating back to the Italian Renaissance and comprising over 350 examples of this diverse and beloved art form. Learn more by purchasing our catalogue Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics, and shop scarves and home gifts inspired by some of our favorite designs from the collection online.