Painting on a plate: Italian Renaissance Maiolica

Maiolica dish, Master C. I., Faenza, Italy, about 1510. Museum no. C. 2118-1910

Maiolica dish, Master C. I., Faenza, Italy, about 1510. Museum no. C. 2118-1910

The years between 1470 and 1530 witness the most spectacular period of development in the history of Italian maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware). Potters produced wares of artistic sophistication and variety never seen before.

From 1500 a new style of pottery-painting, called istoriato, literally story painting, originated in various centres in Italy. The best maiolica painters began to use the whole surface of plates and vessels as canvases, mastering perspective drawing and extending the possibilities of their limited palette of colours to the full.

Finely painted wares achieved a high status amongst some of the grandest Renaissance patrons who commissioned large istoriato table services to use and display in their homes.

Maiolica painters were inspired by a wide variety of graphic sources. These included woodcuts by Italian and German masters and engravings of designs by Raphael and his circle. Potters would sometimes use more than one print for their compositions and combine figures taken from different sources. The most popular subjects represented on istoriato maiolica were from Greek and Roman mythology.

One of the most famous and prolific maiolica painters, Francesco Xanto Avelli (active in Urbino from the mid 1520s to about 1542) was also a poet and started the trend of writing on the reverse of dishes the subject matter represented on the front.

The V&A has one of the greatest collections of Italian maiolica in the world; the Museum holds more than one thousand of these rare and precious objects.

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