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Maiolica – a long and vivid history!

What is maiolica? Where did it come from? What are Deruta ceramics? 

Go into any museum in Italy, and indeed many European museums, and you’re likely to come across glass cases full of beautifully decorated glazed ceramics. Horses and chariots canter around the base of a curved bowl, medieval people make their passegiata across a colourful platter, beautiful women surrounded by intricate patterns gaze out at you from the centre of a plate. 

Image: Deruta Ceramics from 1525 
Attribution: I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These lovely artefacts represent a huge leap forward that the Italian ceramicists made in the 14th century: the manufacture of maiolica glazed earthenware.

The development of maiolica goes back many centuries earlier. The process of adding metallic glazes to produce an iridescent finish (lustreware) first emerged in Mesopotamia as early as the 9th century. It made its way to Europe, probably through trade. Along the way it acquired its new name: the name “maiolica” comes from the Spanish island of Majorca where ships carrying lustreware from Valencia stopped on their way to Italy.

This led to an upsurge in enamel glazed earthenware technologies throughout Europe. In the 1300s Italian ceramicists developed a more sophisticated technique that used tin oxide as a glaze to produce a shining white surface, on which it’s possible to paint coloured patterns and figures. Because the vessels are fired twice, the earthenware becomes impermeable and the colours retain their brightness.

The earliest Italian maiolica was decorated in just two colours: manganese–brown and copper-green. Over the next hundred years, driven by the wealth and passionate interest in art and technology of the ruling classes during the Renaissance, producers improved both the technology and glazes to produce the vividly colourful decorations that maiolica is now known for. 

Image: Deruta ceramics, painted by hand at G&P Deruta 

The production of ceramics spread through the north of Italy with the establishment of centres including Deruta in the province of Perugia, Montelupo, near Florence and Faenza in Romagna near Ravenna. Each town developed its own distinct style.

Deruta was particularly famous because it was located in a Papal state, and a great deal of its production was destined for Papal palaces around Italy and was decorated with Papal iconography. 

While within Italy the popularity of maiolica grew, producers also exported their ceramics across Europe; indeed the French went on to develop their own version of maiolica called faience at production centres based in the south of France. 

Like the technology and smalti, or coloured glazes, the decorative themes also evolved over time. By the 1500s maiolica painters had extended their decorative range to include historical, mythological and biblical scenes, imitating frescos and oil paintings. In the 16th century the decorations began to include fanciful designs known as grotesques. The word is derived from the rediscovery of Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House, in the centre of ancient Rome, where the rooms were painted with grotesque motifs. The painter Raffaello incorporated these motifs in his work, and the ceramicists were quick to adopt them as well. This pattern is known as Raffaellesco.

Italian ceramics led the world until the mid 1700s, when French and German faience overtook maiolica in popularity.  While some of the traditional centres disappeared, others developed in the south of Italy, producing maiolica with different, more modern patterns. In the early 1800s interest in maiolica revived briefly but consumer demand for porcelain and cheaper earthenware products saw the industry fail. However at the beginning of the 20th century a movement was started to revive the production of maiolica in Umbria.  Deruta founded a ceramic museum and training centre to recreate traditional patterns and means of production. Today Deruta is one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of maiolica to the world.  

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