Maiolica: The most popular Italian pottery technique during the Renaissance

Istoriato plate made by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia.

Maiolica is an Italian pottery technique that was very popular during the Renaissance. It is one of the most eye-catching styles of pottery ever produced in the country. The technique was adapted to various ceramic items such as plates, vessels, wine jugs, vases, and sometimes sculptures.

It is typified by having a white background decorated with earth-toned colors, and is the only type of Italian ceramics decorated with this color scheme. The best examples of this tin-glazed pottery were created between the 1450s and the 1550s, under the influence of North Africa in the 13th century.

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Early pieces in this style had simple decorations on these items inspired by legendary and historical themes and later various flower patterns and colorful designs were painted. At first, the only two colors used were brown and green and later in the Renaissance when the glazing technique was improved; the potters used polychrome decorations. Maiolica was made in two steps.

Initially, the item is dipped into a quick-drying liquid glaze on top of which the decorations are painted. Sometimes, when the potters wanted the items to be shinier, they glazed them again with coperta, a glaze made from sand, salt, and potash.

The best of this tin-glazed pottery was created between the 1450s and the 1550s. Author: Harvey Barrison. CC BY-SA 2.0

After the initial glazing process, the surface of the pottery is very smooth, and it is easier for painters to draw on it. There are almost five centuries old maiolica items in museums, and the colors have changed very little from how they were some 500 years ago.

The technique was adapted on various items.

So, this second coperta glaze became very important because it preserved the handmade decorations on the pottery. In the 15th century, this process was mostly used in Florence. The city led the way in the production of these items and made the most beautiful pieces for wealthy clients.

Maiolica plate made by Castel Durante.

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At the beginning of the 16th century, production spread to many cities, including Rome, Pesaro, and Naples. Some of the most stunning pieces with the most beautiful decorations were made in the middle of the century in Venice, Sicily, and Urbino. There were pieces decorated with frescoes or paintings of famous artists, and the style was known as istoriato.

A maiolica piece from the 16th century in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Author: Valerie McGlinchey. CC BY-SA 2.0 uk

The potters used the whole surface of the plates, vases, and vessels as canvases. One of the best potters who made these magnificent pieces was Orazio Fontana. Many of his items were decorated with Raphael’s frescoes, biblical themes, and scenes from Greek mythology. There are stunning examples of his work in museums in Italy that have survived since the Renaissance. Another great Italian istoriato potter was Francesco Xanto Avelli who signed his pieces with unusual marks, making it difficult for today’s art historians to precisely know which objects were made by him.

Istoriato mailoica piece made by Orazio Fontana.

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At the end of the 16th century, the previous maiolica production was stopped in favor of the new type of maiolica known as Bianchi di Faenza. The name comes from the town of Faenza where the style evolved, and from here the pieces were exported to many countries in Europe.

Istoriato plate made by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia.

After kaolin was discovered in the 18th century in Germany, this style was no longer popular because of the production of porcelain tableware. Today, people who own decorated maiolica at home use them only on special occasions. The largest collection of maiolica pieces can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Incredible copies of these items are still made in many workshops around the world.