Maiolica is simply an old Italian word for pottery – specifically earthenware (as opposed to red terracotta), with painted decoration on a white background under a tin-based glaze. It is believed the term was first used to describe the medieval lustre pottery from Spain that was imported into Italy via the island of Mallorca. As the spirit or Renaissance spread through Italy during the 15th century, maiolica potters in Tuscany, particularly those near Florence, took the manufacture of pottery into a totally new dimension.
It is these early pieces and, to a lesser extent, 17th and 18th-century examples that interest collectors today. More affordable are 19th-century copies of early master works predominantly pictured on the photos here – which have just as much decorative potential without the high price tag.Different regions of Italy developed their own distinct styles of colour and ornament. Urbino is best known for a style of painting called istoriato, where Bible stories or scenes from classical mythology were brought to life in vibrant colours. Castel Durante is famed for dishes painted with portraits of beautiful ladies, their names inscribed on a ribbon behind. Faenza produced colourful borders, known as grotesques, featuring mythical beasts among intricate ornament inspired by ancient Rome. Lustre decoration in copper and golden tones was developed at Deruta, while the best lustre decoration was added to Urbino dishes at Gubbio, in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio.
All were painstakingly hand-painted. The brushes were made from goat’s hair or even mouse whiskers and pottery was too far costly to use for serving food. Instead, the workshops focused on chargers, plaques and jars intended for display and to show off one’s wealth. Those who could afford the sets of dishes – the Medicis, Farneses, Gonzagas and other princely families of prosperous Italian cities – displayed them proudly on cabinets in their palazzos. In 1532 the powerful Pucci family of Florence commissioned an extensive set of plates and dishes painted with scenes from classical mythology by one of the most important painters in Urbino, Francesco Xanto Avelli, who was also a poet.
The expensive white tin-based glaze meant maiolica was out of the reach of ordinary homes. It only could be admired in shops of the finest merchants or on the walls of churches, where painted maiolica plaques and panels modelled in relief became part of the richly decorated interiors. Many convents and monasteries had pharmacies attached and these became the most important customers of the maiolica potters - not least because the splendid paintings in brilliant colours gave the jars a magicall quality. People believed that medicine dispensed from such containers must surely cure any ailment.
Sets of pottery jars to contain medicines were arranged on shelves according to drug names written n Latin script. Spouted ‘syrup jars’ contained remedies mixed with sweet honey, while dry medicines and pills were kept in plain cylindrical jars known as albarelli.
One of the first maiolica collectors was Sir Andrew Fountaine (1676 – 1753). His grand tour took him to Italy in 1701, where he discovered what had then become known as ‘Raphael’s ware’. During subsequent trips he bought fantastic pieces by Renaissance masters such as Xanto Avelli, Maestro Giorgio and the artist known as the ‘In Castel Durante painter’. When the Fountaine collection was sold in 1884, British aristocracy, newly wealthy industrialists and European museums joined a bidding battle which raised a total of £91,112, the equivalent of several million pounds today.
16th-century maiolica is always costly, with superb examples selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds. But later pieces, particularly those from the 19th century, are more affordable. The designs are somewhat debased, but in a way this adds to the folk charm that gives maiolica so much appeal. Nice 18th-century plates can be found for as little as £200, while many drug jars and albarelli from north Italy o Sicily sell for just a few hundred pounds.
A few workshops used marks and some masterpieces are signed, but identifying marks on maiolica is something od a minefield. Even three centuries ago dealers are said to have tried all sorts of tricks to cheat Sir Andrew Fountaine. Maiolica fakes are more than plentyful and the best Vicorian copy is almost impossible to tell apart from the real thing. So, if you are inexperienced, buy from a specialist dealer or leading auction houses.