Marvels of Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art Collection

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LEARNING from EXHIBITIONS

Maiolica, a high-quality, beautifully decorated tin-glazed earthenware, evolved during the Renaissance to achieve a value well beyond its natural material worth. Maiolica is one key to understanding life in Renaissance Italy--a rich, complex, sophisticated and cultural period filled with a wide range of functional and exquisite objects that served and enhanced the lives of its citizens.

The term "Maiolica" or "Majolica" is a medieval Italian derivation of the name of the island of Majorca which was the source of many imports, including ceramics, to Italy. In the Renaissance, the Italians used the term maiolica to describe Hispano-Moresque lusterwares. Over time, the name was more generally applied to include a variety of tin-glazed earthenware forms and styles.

Most commonly associated with the Italian Renaissance, the history of maiolica actually dates back to Islamic prototypes created as early as the 9th century. By the 11th century the technique and style of this lusterware had become more widespread and, by the 13th century, large quantities of this pottery were being imported to Italy from Moorish Spain. In the 15th century, Italy's own maiolica production grew to eventually dominate the pottery of Europe and set a trend that continued for centuries, even up to the present day.

The technique of making majolica begins with firing a piece of earthenware. Next, the surface of the object is painted with a tin enamel that dries to form a white opaque, porous surface. A design or image is then painted on in colors. A transparent glaze is applied overall and, finally, the piece is fired again.

The rise of Majolica pottery in the Italian Renaissance signaled a change in the perception and purpose of ceramic wares. Ceramics went from being primarily austere and utilitarian to gaining the status of an art form. Maiolica actually can be considered a branch of Renaissance painting as well as an important chapter in ceramic history. Well crafted and elegantly decorated, these ceramics flourished throughout Italy and were highly prized by collectors.

Through the Renaissance, collectors displayed maiolica proudly and prominently in their homes and businesses. Citizens from all levels of society gave majolica as gifts; notaries referred to it in documents; and merchants carried wares from local workshops as well as from neighboring regions. …