Istoriato decoration on a plate from Castel Durante, c.1550-1570 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille)

Maiolica[1] is Italian tin-glazed pottery dating from the Renaissance. It is decorated in bright colours on a white background, frequently depicting historical and legendary scenes.



The name is thought to come from the medieval Italian word for Majorca, an island on the route for ships bringing Hispano-Moresque wares from Valencia to Italy. Moorish potters from Majorca are reputed to have worked in Sicily and it has been suggested that their wares reached the Italian mainland from Caltagirone[2] An alternative explanation of the name is that it comes from the Spanish term obra de Malaga, denoting “[imported] wares from Malaga”.[3] or obra de mélequa, the Spanish name for luster.[4]

In the 15th century, the term maiolica referred solely to lusterware, including both Italian-made and Spanish imports, and tin-glaze wares were known as bianchi (white ware).[4] Eventually the term came to be used when describing ceramics made in Italy, lustered or not, of tin-glazed earthenware. With the Spanish conquest of Mexico, tin-glazed maiolica wares came to be produced in the Valley of Mexico as early as 1540, at first in imitation of tin-glazed pottery imported from Seville.[5] Mexican maiolica is known famously as 'Talavera'.

Istoriato charger, Faenza, ca 1555 (Dallas Museum of Art)

Tin-glazed earthenware

Tin glazing creates a brilliant white, opaque surface for painting. The colours are applied as metallic oxides or as fritted underglazes to the unfired glaze, which absorbs pigment like fresco, making errors impossible to fix, but preserving the brilliant colors. Sometimes the surface is covered with a second glaze (called coperta by the Italians) that lends greater shine and brilliance to the wares. In the case of lustred wares, a further firing at a lower temperature is required. Kilns required wood (which contributed to deforestation even of the unplantable hillsides at ever higher altitudes) as well as suitable clay. Glaze was made from sand, wine lees, lead compounds and tin compounds.[6]

Analysis of many samples of Italian majolica pottery from the Middle Ages has indicated that tin was not always a component of the majolica glazes, whose chemical composition was not constant [7]

The fifteenth-century wares that initiated maiolica as an art form were the product of an evolution in which medieval lead-glazed wares were improved by the addition of tin oxides under the influence of Islamic wares imported through Sicily.[8] Such archaic wares[9] are sometimes called "proto-maiolica".[10] During the later fourteenth century, the limited palette of colours was expanded from the traditional manganese purple and copper green to include cobalt blue, antimony yellow and iron-oxide orange. Sgraffito wares were also produced, in which the white tin-oxide glaze was scratched through to produce a design from the revealed body of the ware. Scrap sgraffito ware excavated from kilns in Bacchereto, Montelupo and Florence show that such wares were produced more widely than at Perugia and Città di Castello, the places to which they have been traditionally attributed.[11]

Dish with bird, in Islamic-derived style, Orvieto, ca.1270-1330 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

History of production

Refined production of tin-glazed earthenwares made for more than local needs was concentrated in central Italy from the later thirteenth century, especially in the contada of Florence. The medium was also adopted by the Della Robbia family of Florentine sculptors. The city itself declined in importance in the second half of the fifteenth century, perhaps because of local deforestation, while the production scattered among small communes[12] and, after mid-fifteenth century, at Faenza. Significantly, in a contract of 1490[13] twenty-three master-potters of Montelupo agreed to sell the year's production to Francesco Antinori of Florence; Montelupo provided the experienced potters who were set up in 1495 at the Villa Medicea di Cafaggiolo‎ by its Medici owners.[14] Florentine wares spurred characteristic productions in the fifteenth century at Arezzo and Siena.

Dish from Deruta, 2nd quarter of the 16th century, shows the full range of glaze colors (Victoria and Albert Museum)

In the fifteenth century Italian maiolica reached an astonishing degree of perfection. In Romagna, Faenza, which gave its name to faience, produced fine maiolica from the early fifteenth century; it was the only fair-sized city in which the ceramic industry became a major economic component.[15] Bologna produced lead-glazed wares for export. Orvieto and Deruta both produced maioliche in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, maiolica production was established at Castel Durante, Urbino, Gubbio and Pesaro. The early sixteenth century saw the development of istoriato wares on which historical and legendary scenes were painted in great detail. The State Museum of Medieval and Modern Art in Arezzo claims to have the largest collection of istoriato wares in Italy. Istoriato wares are also well represented in the British Museum, London.

Some maiolica was produced as far north as Padua, Venice and Turin and as far south as Palermo and Caltagirone in Sicily [16] and Laterza in Apulia. In the seventeenth century Savona began to be a prominent place of manufacture.

The variety of styles that arose in the sixteenth century all but defies classification.[17] Italian cities encouraged the start of a new pottery industry by offering tax relief, citizenship, monopoly rights and protection from outside imports.

An important mid-sixteenth century document for the techniques of maiolica painting is the treatise of Cipriano Piccolpasso, not a professional potter himself.[18] Individual sixteenth-century masters like Nicola da Urbino, Francesco Xanto Avelli, Guido Durantino and Orazio Fontana of Urbino, Mastro Giorgio of Gubbio and Maestro Domenigo of Venice all deserve individual treatment. Gubbio lustre used colours such as greenish yellow, strawberry pink and a ruby red. The tradition of maiolica died away in the eighteenth century, under competition from inexpensive porcelains and white earthenware.

Some of the principal centers of production (e.g. Deruta and Montelupo) still produce maiolica, which is sold world wide. Modern maiolica looks different from old maiolica because its glaze is usually opacified with the cheaper zircon rather than tin, though there are potteries that specialise in making authentic-looking Renaissance-style pieces with genuine tin-glaze.

"By a convenient extension and limitation the name may be applied to all tin-glazed ware, of whatever nationality, made in the Italian tradition ... the name faïence (or the synonymous English 'delftware') being reserved for the later wares of the 17th Century onwards, either in original styles (as in the case of the French) or, more frequently, in the Dutch-Chinese (Delft) tradition."[19] The term "maiolica" is sometimes applied to modern tin-glazed ware made by studio potters (as in Osterman's book, see below).

The English word, majolica, is also used for Victorian majolica, a different type of pottery with clear, coloured glazes.

Renaissance and modern maiolica

See also


  1. ^ The spelling with long i, majolica, gives rise to the Anglicised pronunciation "maggolica", which is reserved for 19th-century tin- and lead-glazed stoneware: see Majolica.
  2. ^ Drury C. E. Fortnum (1892) Maiolica, Chapman & Hall, London, quoted in E.A. Barber, (1915), Hispano Moresque Pottery, The Hispanic Society of America, New York, pp.25-.26
  3. ^ Sweetman, John (1987), The oriental obsession: Islamic inspiration in British and American art and architecture 1500-1920, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. ^ a b Alan Caiger-Smith, Lustre Pottery, Lomdon and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1985
  5. ^ Florence C. Lister and Robert H. Lister, Sixteenth Century Maiolica Pottery in the Valley of Mexico (Tucson: Anthrological Papers of the University of Arizona) 1982.
  6. ^ Cipriano Piccolpasso, ‘’The Three Books of the Potter’s Art’’, (translated by Ronald Lightbown and Alan Caiger-Smith), London, Scolar Press, 1980
  7. ^ 'Tin-lead Ration Of Late Middle Age Majolica Glazes Of Some Iimportant Italian Sites.' A.Krajewski, A.Ravaglioli, G.W.Carriveau. J.Mat.Sci.Lett. 11, No.12,1992.Pg.848-851.
  8. ^ Richard A. Goldthwaite, "The Economic and Social World of Italian Renaissance Maiolica" Renaissance Quarterly, 42.1 (Spring 1989 pp. 1-32) p. 1.
  9. ^ Hugo Blake, "The archaic maiolica of North-Central Italy: Montalcino, Assisi and Tolentino", Faenza, 66 (1980) pp 91-106.
  10. ^ David Whitehouse, "Proto-maiolica" Faenza 66 (1980), pp 77-83.
  11. ^ Galeazzo Cora, Storia della Maiolica di Firenze e del Contado. Secoli XIV e XV (Florence: Sassoni) 1973
  12. ^ Galeazzo Cora (1973) noted kilns dispersed at Bacchereto (a center of production from the fourteenth century), Puntormo, Prato and Pistoia, none of them site-names that have circulated among connoisseurs and collectors.
  13. ^ Reproduced in Cora 1973.
  14. ^ In the 1498 inventory there is noted in the villa's piazza murata (the walled enclosure), fornaze col portico da cuocere vaselle ("kilns for baking pottery"), let to Piero and Stefano foraxari, the "kilnmasters" of the maiolica manufactory for which Cafaggiolo is famed. These are Piero and Stefano di Filippo da Montelupo, who started up the kilns under Medici patronage in 1495, earlier than has been thought (Cora 1973 gave a date 1498; John Shearman, "The Collections of the Younger Branch of the Medici" The Burlington Magazine 117 No. 862 (January 1975), pp. 12, 14-27 gives 1495, based on a document.
  15. ^ Goldthwaite 1989:14.
  16. ^ Rackham, p. 9; Caiger-Smith p.82
  17. ^ Goldthwaite 1989: p.6 notes that Paride Berardi's morphology of Pesaro maioliche comprises four styles in 20 sub-groups; Tiziano Mannoni categorized Ligurian wares in four types, eight sub-categories and 36 further divisions; Galeazzo Cora's morphology of Montelupo's production is in 19 groups and 51 categories. The diversity of styles can best be seen in a comparative study of albarello produced between the 15th and 18th centuries.
  18. ^ The standard English translation is The Three Books of the Potter's Art, translated and introduced by Ronald Lightbown and Alan Caiger-Smith, (London) 1980.
  19. ^ Honey, p.387


  • Caiger-Smith, Alan, Tin-Glaze Pottery in Europe and the Islamic World: The Tradition of 1000 Years in Maiolica, Faience and Delftware (Faber and Faber, 1973) ISBN 0-571-09349-3
  • Cohen, David Harris and Hess, Catherine, A Guide To Looking At Italian Ceramics (J. Paul Getty Museum in association with British Museum Press, 1993)
  • Cora, Galeazzo Storia della Maiolica di Firenze e del Contado. Secoli XIV e XV (Florence:Sassoni) 1973. The standard monograph on the main early centers, published in an extravagant format that now brings over $1200 on the book market.
  • Faenza. Journal published since 1914 devoted to maiolica and glazed earthenwares.
  • Honey, W.B., European Ceramic Art (Faber and Faber, 1952)
  • Liverani, G. La maiolica Italiana sino alla comparsa della Porcellana Europea A summary of a century's study, largewly based on surviving examples.
  • Mussachio, Jacqueline, Marvels of Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Bunker Hill Publishing, 2004)
  • Osterman, Matthias, The New Maiolica: Contemporary Approaces to Colour and Technique (A&C Black/University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7136-4878-3
  • Rackham, Bernard. Italian Maiolica (London: Faber and Faber Monographs)
  • Wilson, Timothy, "Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance (London) 1987. Bibliography.
  • ---, Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean Handbooks, 1989) ISBN 0-907849-90-3

External links

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  • maiolica — /ma jɔlika/ s.f. [dal nome di Maiorca (ant. Maiòrica o Maiòlica ), principale isola dell arcipelago delle Baleari, da cui provenivano oggetti di ceramica]. 1. [prodotto ceramico a pasta porosa, opaca, di colore dal giallo al rosso, rivestita di… …   Enciclopedia Italiana

  • maiólica — s. f. Majólica …   Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa

  • maiolică — MAJOLÍCĂ s.f. Specie de faianţă italiană caracterizată prin smalţul metalic; p.gener. faianţă. ♦ Obiect fabricat din această faianţă. – Din fr. majolique, maïolique. Trimis de claudia, 27.10.2008. Sursa: DEX 98  MAIOLÍCĂ s.f. v. majolică. Trimis …   Dicționar Român

  • maiolica — ma·iò·li·ca s.f. 1. CO ceramica, di composizione varia, rivestita di smalto opaco, bianco o colorato: un servizio di maiolica | oggetto di tale materiale: vendita di maioliche 2. TS petr. roccia sedimentaria composta essenzialmente da calcare… …   Dizionario italiano

  • maiolica — {{hw}}{{maiolica}}{{/hw}}s. f. 1 Prodotto ceramico ricoperto con uno smalto impermeabile. 2 (est.) Oggetto di maiolica. ETIMOLOGIA: da Maiolica, forma ant. di Maiorca, isola delle Baleari da cui era importata …   Enciclopedia di italiano

  • Maiolica — Majolikabecher aus Mexiko Papagei mit Maske, 1915 von Joseph Wackerle entworfen, hergestellt in der …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • maiolica — [mə jɒlɪkə, mʌɪ ɒlɪkə] noun fine earthenware with coloured decoration on an opaque white tin glaze, originating in Italy during the Renaissance. Origin C16: Ital., from Maiolica Majorca …   English new terms dictionary

  • maiolica — [da Maiolica, forma ant. di Maiorca, isola delle Baleari, da dove fu importata] s. f. porcellana, ceramica, terracotta, terraglia …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • maiolica — n. a white tin glazed earthenware decorated with metallic colours, orig. popular in the Mediterranean area during the Renaissance (see also MAJOLICA). Etymology: It. f. former name of Majorca * * * maiolica var. form of majolica …   Useful english dictionary

  • Maiolica di Laterza — The Maiolica di Laterza is a precious kind of maiolica made in the town of Laterza, part of the Apulia region in Italy. Being at first an epicenter of creation for the Great Greece (Magna Graecia in Latin) during the Ancient Rome and Medieval… …   Wikipedia

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