Maiolica is a type of low-fire ceramic earthenware covered with an opaque white tin glaze and decorated with colored pigments. Medieval potters discovered that a white tin based glaze was more stable in the firing process than transparent lead glaze and the white surface was ideal for elaborate painted decoration. This type of pottery is also known by the names: majolica, faience, delftware, and tin-glazed pottery. Maiolica pottery was especially popular in Italy during the Renaissance.
Maiolica Technique Development
Islamic potters originally developed the white tin-glaze decorative technique during the Middle Ages. The development of the technique is believed to have been inspired by the trade of finely decorated Chinese Porcelain. [Europeans finally discovered how to make hard-paste porcelain in the late 18th century.] From Persia, the tin-glaze decorating technique spread into Spain where it was developed into what is known as Hispano-Moresque ware. Spanish tin-glaze pottery was imported into Italy during the 11th and 12th centuries. About 1200 AD the Italian potters adapted the technique and eventually called it "maiolica". The name "maiolica" was derived from where the tin-glaze ware was imported - Majorca Spain.
The Spanish, Italians and Persians also produced a special type of maiolica called lusterware. Lusterware required applying an iridescent film onto already fired tin-glaze pottery. A third "reduced" firing technique was required for this type of decoration. The luster technique was difficult to do and had a high failure rate. Some pottery centers failed to produce lusterware successfully. Originally the Italians used the term "maiolica" only to refer to vessels decorated with lusterware but eventually the term was applied to all decorated tin-glaze wares. At first the Italians were limited to the colors copper green and manganese brown/purple. Pieces with this green and brown decoration are known as "archaic maiolica". Blue, yellow and other colors were introduced later, mostly in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Maiolica production centers in Italy created lavishly decorated plates and bowls for many different consumer markets. There are many surviving examples of pieces created for wealthy patrons. Sets were made as well as elaborate custom pieces used only for display. Maiolica was created for special occasions such as marriages or births. Maiolica jars were produced in great numbers for hospitals and pharmacies. Maiolica was also produced for export to other parts of Europe and for the pilgrim tourist trade.
The maiolica technique eventually spread to Northern Europe. Italian potters set up business in what is now modern Belgium and Holland in the beginning of the 16th century. Flemish maiolica floor tiles were exported to England during the reign of Henry VIII. When war broke out between the Spanish and the Dutch, Antwerp was sacked a number of times and some maiolica potters moved into Holland and England. In Holland, the technique evolved into modern blue and white Delftware. In England, the technique was known as "tin-glaze" earthenware, maiolica or majolica. A piece of tin-glaze earthenware with an image of the Tower of London was presented to Elizabeth I by English potters about 1600. This piece is now in the Museum of London.
Renaissance Manufacturing Resources
Much is known about the manufacturing of Renaissance maiolica because of an existing period manuscript titled "Tre Libre Dell'arte Del Vasio". This name is translated as "The Three Books of the Potters Art". This early "how to" guide was written in approximately 1557 by Cipriano Piccolpasso at the request of Cardinal Francois de Tournon. The three books contain a significant number of illustrations, which are frequently reproduced in books that describe museum collections of maiolica. Based on Piccolpasso, a typical medium sized workshop would have had a foreman or manager, two throwers, two or three painters, one or two kiln men and a few general workers or apprentices. Based on surviving account books, is is also known that maiolica painters decorated at a piecework rate for multiple workshops. Maiolica painters also painted wooden bridal chests and carved images. The Victoria and Albert Museum now owns the original manuscript written by Cipriano Piccolpasso. Facsimile copies of the manuscript are available through inter-library loan or university libraries.
Maiolica continues to be produced in modern Italy using the standard shapes and traditional patterns and motifs of the sixteenth century.
For More Information
More information on the history of maiolica check out the books on museum collections on the Bibliography page.