Published: April 27, 2004
Crisp, clear and stunningly colorful are the striking images adorning the selection of Sixteenth Century Italian Renaissance ceramics currently on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. The exhibition “Marvels of Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art” comprises 32 pieces of exquisite utilitarian rdf_Descriptions: plates and dishes, apothecary jars, inkwells, devotional objects and other useful articles dating from 1500 to the end of the century.
The rare selection of maiolica, on loan from the Corcoran’s William A. Clark Collection, and the Vassar College show, is being presented in the first of a series of scheduled exhibitions around the country.
Highly sophisticated and exquisitely painted tin-glazed earthenware appeared in Italy in the late Fourteenth Century from Moorish Spain, via the island of Majorca from which the art derives its name, but varieties of it had been seen much earlier in Babylon and Assyria. Maiolica in Italy (as opposed to the “majolica” that appeared in England in the late Nineteenth Century) was made from carefully prepared clay with tin glazing, which produced an opaque white surface that could be elaborately decorated.
In Renaissance Italy, the emergence of these beautiful maiolica objects coincided with a rising consumerism. Possession and display of such elegant pieces reflected a family’s importance, affluence, erudition and fine reputation, or merely its aspirations thereto.
As the tin used in the glazing process was quite expensive, maiolica was far more costly than ordinary pottery, but it was still far more affordable and decorative than silver. It was aesthetically pleasing and desirable and the demand for it was great. Everywhere it was a highly competitive business, and trade secrets were guarded jealously. Exhibit curator Jacqueline M. Musacchio contends that so many beautiful and delicate pieces have survived in such fine condition because of the careful handling accorded such prized household articles. These objects were valued equally for their utility and for the aesthetic pleasure they gave.
Several centers of maiolica production flourished in Renaissance Italy, from Venice in the north to as far south as Naples, with a concentration in the central regions. There was even a center at Palermo in Sicily.
The objects on view are grouped loosely by function.
A selection of maiolica apothecary jars – albarelli – attest to the vital importance of the apothecary as the main resource for medical treatment during the Renaissance period. Medical techniques were rudimentary and treatments ran to herbs and potions. Albarelli, with their characteristic tall-waisted forms, were in great demand and they were in high production. The Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence ordered nearly 1,000 from ceramist Giunta di Tugio in 1430. A few survive, identifiable by a crutch incorporated in the hospital crest.
The earliest piece on view is an albarello made in Faenza and decorated with fanciful images of putti. Another albarello from Faenza on view, a mid-Sixteenth Century example, is painted in rich hues of yellow and blue decorated with a turk’s head and an inscription that indicates that the jar held an aromatic medicinal. An albarello, also made in Deruta, in about 1507, is painted with sumptuous images of a satyr chasing a nymph, holding her by the wrist and raising a club to subdue her. The secondary action is a clash between a horse and a lion. The images are lively, executed in vivid hues of blue, green and yellow. An incorporated banner informs us that the vessel contained a restorative cordial of sugared borage. A slightly later example made around 1510-1515 in Siena has wide borders of vivid color and the intense Moorish design distinctive to the area, executed in blue, yellow and red.
Other drug jars from the Orazio Pompeii workshop take a variety of forms: one bottle form example is decorated with babies riding a griffin, and another, measuring 17 inches, illustrates Cleopatra contemplating the asp. A globular drug jar from the workshop of Domenica da Venezia is painted with the image of a young woman.
The large open spaces of a plate or dish allowed the artist to let his genius flow. Among the examples on view is a late Fifteenth or early Sixteenth Century plate from Faenza with a central medallion of clasped hands surrounded by striking concentric patterns of geometric designs in blue and yellow. The piece was a marriage plate; clasped hands signifying fidelity. The motif also implied the blending of families occasioned by a marriage and such plates were gifts or commemorations of the event.
Curator Musacchio’s favorite piece on view is the exquisite bella donna plate made in Gubbio in 1541 for a young woman called Camilla. Maiolica bella donna plates were made between 1520 and 1540 and featured a central portrait of a young woman with ribands marked with the woman’s name and the word “bella.” Camilla is fashionably dressed and she wears a red coral necklace that was meant to ward off maladies. Bella donna plates were made as betrothal or marriage gifts, and Musacchio says she likes to think about how the plate might have been used.
Another plate on view is a circa 1520-1525 lustre maiolica dish with an allegorical scene of a donkey attacking a wolf. It has strong Hispano Moorish design elements and bears the warning, “See, people, to what the world has come when the ass, if he wants to, can eat the wolf.”
Several plates on view by Urbino painter by Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo were based on prints by artists of the Raphael school. Xanto’s “The Massacre of the Innocents” and “The Battle of Roncevaux” are robust in color and action. Xanto also produced plates based on prurient images by Guilio Romano, who attracted the wrath of the Vatican and was eventually jailed for his blasphemous efforts.
The popularity of classical images endured. A gorgeous lustered image of Judith and the head of Holofernes adorns a molded dish made in Deruta that looks as if it had been gilded, such was the talent of the maker. A beautiful footed dish with a wide band of bright blue with concentric yellow designs and a central medallion with the arms of the Medici also displays the papal tiara and the crossed keys of St Peter. It was associated with Giovanni dé Medici who became Pope Leo X in 1513.
An ewer basin made at the Fontana workshop in Urbino with a central medallion of Europa and the Bull demonstrates an example of grottesche. Elaborate and fanciful grottesche, design elements that are bizarre, supernatural or grotesque, was very popular. The surround of the ewer basin is predominantly white on which feathery grottesche elements have been painted.
A Tuscan tile on view is representative of those used commonly inside and outside the home, lending beauty and durability to a household.
The William A. Clark collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art numbers some 800 objects of which Italian Renaissance maiolica is just a small portion. The highly controversial and grandly colorful Clark controlled one of America’s largest business empires and built a railroad to bring his copper mines closer to the Pacific. Known for his blatant purchase of the US Senate seat from Montana and eye-popping feats of chicanery, Clark had a very good eye and used his enormous fortune to amass a wonderful collection of paintings and decorative arts, all bequeathed to the Corcoran at his death in 1925.
Marvels of Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art Collection, the exhibit catalog, was written by exhibit curator Musacchio. It is highly detailed and handsomely is illustrated with captivating images of the wares on view. Musacchio is also the author of The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy, which surveys the objects related to childbirth in the Sixteenth Century and examines their social and cultural context. The catalog, published by Bunker Hill Publishing, is available for $10.95 at the museum bookshop.
“Marvels of Maiolica” remains on view at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center through June 13. For information, 845-437-5632 or . The exhibit will also be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in St Petersburg, Fla., from September 25 through January 2; the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh.; the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich.; the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, Minn.; and at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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