History of Italian MaJolica Ceramics

Ceramics and Maiolica: what is the difference between the two?

The difference, at least in the common use of the words, does not exist: maiolica is ceramics, but not all ceramics are maiolica ... besides, ceramics were made long before maiolica came into existence around the 6th Century A.D.

The word ceramics comes from the Greek keras, horn. In prehistoric times horns were used as containers; later ceramic containers made out of clay were used to store food, water, wine, oil. Keramica describes the working of the clay. The hardening of the clay under the hot desert sun may have given our ancestors the idea that clay would harden even more if subjected to firing. It was the right understanding, and since then ceramics have been part of human civilization.

Different types of clay, combined with natural ingredients like sodium, potassium feldspar, are the necessary first steps to obtain specific earthenware products like Ceramics, Maiolica or Porcelain. In ancient times only China and Persia were able to create porcelain. Porcelain objects were highly appreciated for their qualities like impermeability and hard finish, but the necessary ingredient, kaolin, was a jealously kept secret. Regular clay ceramics needed surface glazing in order to hold liquids. An ancient rough glazing called Ingobbio was available but it is only in the 6th Century A.D. that Arabs found that certain mineral oxides, once dissolved in water, could be absorbed on the porous surface of fired clay. The biscuit then can be decorated and, once fired a second time, we obtain an object called Maiolica, white glazed, often painted over with beautiful decorations and, most importantly with a hard, smooth surface having qualities similar to porcelain. In the 6th century when Arabs, at that time called Moors, started moving westward,conquering North Africa, Spain, and Sicily, they brought with them their Maiolica working techniques. In the 13th century Italians thought that this new type of ceramics was originated from the island of Majorca, and they called it Maiolica. In reality Majorca, an island south of Spain, was the port from which ships sailed to bring to Italy their precious cargos of ceramics.

The ancient Republic of Pisa was the seaport where, in the 13th Century, ceramics from Majorca were unloaded and then transported inland on the Arno River, going through Montelupo Fiorentino giving to this Tuscan ceramic center the historical advantage of a first look at how Hispano-Moorish ceramics were made. How about Umbria? Little known is the fact that Orvieto, right in the center of Italy, was one of the first Italian Maiolica centers. This flourishing medieval town of Etruscan origin, had access to its own seaport, Orbetello, through the Tiber river. The 13th century Orvieto pottery, painted mostly with brown and green colors, was so prized that Arabs were buying it for their eastern Mediterranean markets.

The first historical period of Italian Maiolica encompasses part of the 14th century as well as most of the 15th century. During this period, the objects were created mostly for utilitarian purposes with decorations based on abstract and geometric motifs. Towards the end of the 15th century, human portraits became very popular especially with the painting of plates or bowls called Coppa Amatoria, Lover's Cup: a dedication to a loved one. Very large plates called Piatti da Pompa, Pompous Plates, were also painted, to honor a celebrity or a personal achievement. During this period one man, Luca Della Robbia, was most instrumental in bringing Maiolica to the level of other major art forms, like painting and sculpture. Luca started as a marble sculptor. But the carving of marble takes a long time; soon he selected to work with clay, molds, glazes and kilns. Especially beautiful are Luca's white glazes, soft in texture and certainly warmer and richer to look at than a polished marble surface.

In the 16th century Maiolica developed as a perfect combination between function and art. One example is the Apothecary Jar, Albarello in Italian, used in pharmacies to store herbs, drugs, syrups, powders and pills. The other most important example is the creation of Maiolica tableware. Dinnerware sets started to be produced in Faenza, Deruta and Castelli. These services were commissioned by aristocratic families who wanted to impress their guests by having the family coat of arm painted on each plate. The introduction of Maiolica dishes achieved a social revolution. Before, meals were presented in large wooden platters from which each guest could help himself. Renaissance Maiolica brought civility to dining habits and made a real difference, both aesthetically and hygienically.

Towards the end of the 16th century the Istoriato style became the highest artistic expression of Italian Renaissance Maiolica. The object, plate or vase, is only a physical support for elaborate narrative scenes - historical or mythological: the painter simply expresses his creativity. Some famous artists of Istoriato style are: Niccolo' da Urbino, Francesco Santo Avelli, Mastro Giorgio, Baldassarre Manoro and Orazio Fontana. The productions from this extraordinary period shows figures whose characters have gracious bodies and delicate flesh colors; they move in an airy composition with perfect space prospective. By this time Italian Maiolica was so popular that Maiolica, everywhere else in Europe, had been translated into a new word: Faience, from the Maiolica town of Faenza.

When kaolin was discovered in Germany in the 18th century, porcelain became the favorite tableware and Maiolica ceased to dominate the market.

In the 19th century, private collectors and Museums started collecting all available original Renaissance pieces and that helped to revive interest in the Renaissance traditional Maiolica. Soon artisans were creating perfect copies that could defy the originals!

Maiolica undoubtedly has a great appeal for many people and for many artists - Picasso for example. The main reason probably is that the creative process of making Maiolica remains the same as it was 500 years ago. The potter may now have an electric wheel, instead of pushing a pedal to throw the clay. The wood burning kilns have been replaced by electric kilns, but all the work that goes into creating a Maiolica piece follows the same ancient tradition, ... especially hand painting, where quality and artistry define a true Maiolica piece.

~Gianfranco Savio