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Picol Passo and the Art of Maiolica in 16th century Italy - Part Two

Castel Durante was a natural pottery center by virtue of the clays deposited by the river Metauro, the manner of collection and subsequent processing of which is examined at the beginning of the first book. The potteries had benefited from the direct patronage of the rulers of the Duchy of Urbino during the hundred years preceding Picol Passo's time and painted maiolica was made in addition to the older, traditional clear-glazed and unglazed\utilitarian ware. The interest of Guidobaldo 11, Duke of Urbino for most of Picol Passo's lifetime, in the pottery industry of his fief is well documented. One of his commissions still exists: a set of pharmacy jars, probably mainly of the albarello shape, now in the sanctuary of Santa Casa at Loreto, where 348 of them still exist.

Thus we have two reasons emerging for the existence of these workshops, the first of which is the production of cheap and useful objects for local needs. The second is the profit and notoriety to be gained from the production of expensive and exclusive products for the delight of those who could afford them. It is in this second category that we, predictably enough. encounter the interest of notable figures of the time, as it was the fashion of the day for men of privilege to gain some knowledge of many different areas of activity and learning. Picol Passo, citing the example of Cosimo 1 de' Medioi, who, beside patronizing scholars and painters....is willing with his own hand....to wield the hammer, there painting, there sculpting, now acting as a carpenter, there working on artillery, often as a founder at the furnaces, experimenting with metals to see if bronze comes out in a hard or soft alloy, With his Own hand to work as a master....*.

Or, speaking of Fracesco Maria 11 of Urbino..... ' On this Francesco Maria, duke of Urbino, my natural lord and master, has well employed his mind and already made a beginning with great fervor, having appointed in several places of his state certain apartments- in which, as is already seen in Pesaro, there are many workshops of the most excellent arts, such as Clock-makers, very accomplished gold-smiths, painters and sculptors. They are still employed in setting up furnaces and the like: here will be practiced the art of the smith, the art of the carpenter and amongst all the rest will be seen to flourish the art of the potter, already flourishing as it does more than in any other place in Italy...*

The workshops of the day would have consisted of a number of people who worked generally in their own areas, as well as a workshop managers and Picol Passo gives an approximation of one foreman or manager, two throwers, two or three painters, one or two kiln-men plus a few general workers, perhaps apprentices. Thus, what we are looking at is a typical light-industry, positioned close to the source of its raw-materials, producing goods for local consumption and limited export, employing people on fixed-wages as well as sub-contracting, owned sometimes by the manager and at others by an individual not directly concerned with the day to day running of the workplace but having a controlling interest by virtue of capital input.

Another document which throws some light on such mundane details of day to day work is the book of accounts kept from 1453 to 1496 by Maestro Gentile Fornarni, a painter of pottery in Faenzai. Maestro Gentile received a retaining fee from a certain Maestro Giuglielmo and his sons, in whose workshop, or bottega, he painted vessels at a piecework rate when needs arose. He also painted in several other workshops, and from time to time he painted wooden bridal- coffers and carved images. Maestro Guiglielmo usually had one firing of finished ware every month, sometimes two when a large order was at hand. From August to December 1465 Maestro Gentile painted an average of 669 pieces a month. Maestro Gentile's accounts include the names of a number of painted designs, several of which appear in the Arte del' Vasio.

The painter of maiolica ware, apart from relying on set designs and themes with the addition of material such as armorial crests, flags and lettering also had a rich source of imagery at hand when tackling Istoriato work that depicted figurative and narrative subjects. This was, after all, Renaissance Italy, and many of the painters of maiolica relied on borrowing from the images of the day, often from engravings or woodcuts. This can be seen in this Urbino plate, 1535-40, where the unknown painter has copied from the engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, which itself is copied from a composition by Raphael. The subject is the Plague of Phrygia. Or another example, this time by the 'Castel Durante painter', again after a work of Haimondi's, the 'seated man holding a flute' which in the ceramic has become ' Orpheus charming the beasts'.

The period we have been examining here, the early to mid l6th century saw Italian maiolica ware traded and sold in most of the European centers of the day, and, not unnaturally, where their work found a good reception the potters soon followed. From Italy the new movement returned revitalized to Spain. It also spread to Pranoa, to Flanders and on to Holland and England, and finally through Switzerland to Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Russia. In time all these places developed recognizable individual styles, and during the l7th century technology was to change to allow the examples of the east, specifically Chinese Ming period ware to be emulated with great accuracy, and for the ware to become very much finer and more precise in nature.

But at a certain point, although this ware still carries the name maiolica, it seems to me that in its very refinement it loses some of the qualities of spontaneity and humanity that mark it as one of the great periods in ceramics.

* Picol Passo -in the 'Introduction to I Tre Libre dell'Arte del Vasio (The Three Books of the Potters Art), p. 20

Thanks to Damon Moon, for the use of this text.



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