Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

History at the Table in Renaissance Italy ; Exhibition Showcases Storytelling through Majolica Masterpieces

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

History at the Table in Renaissance Italy ; Exhibition Showcases Storytelling through Majolica Masterpieces

Article excerpt

Majolica is the subject of "Fabulae Pictae: Myths and Stories in Renaissance Majolica" at the Bargello Museum.

The finest majolica enjoyed enormous esteem in Renaissance Italy. And the most prized of all was "istoriato," or "majolica," decorated with narrative scenes.

The Medici were voracious collectors of the tin-glazed decorated earthenware and, though hundreds of items were dispersed (200 pieces were sold at the end of the 18th century), the Bargello museum here inherited a superlative selection.

The special role as a vehicle of humanist culture of this istoriato majolica, which in the late 15th and 16th century became an almost ubiquitous presence in every princely, aristocratic and well-to-do home, is the subject of "Fabulae Pictae: Myths and Stories in Renaissance Majolica" at the Bargello. This illuminating exhibition of "Painted Stories," curated by Marino Marini, not only showcases some of the museum's own majolica masterpieces but has cast its net wide to bring in wonderful examples from a score of other collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Italian cities tended to dominate the production of the fine and decorative arts, majolica was consistently made in smaller provincial centers, notably in the Marche, Urbino, Pesaro and Deruta in the Duchy of Urbino -- where almost all the pieces in this show originally come from -- and Faenza. Despite the Medici passion for it, only relatively small quantities of top-quality majolica were manufactured in Florence and Tuscany.

A resplendent court culture of its own able to supply a high level of intellectual and artistic input to guide the majolica painters, suitable clay resources and an abundance of wood to fuel furnaces gave the Marche region an advantage in developing this prestigious industry. As early as 1486, Camilla Sforza, regent of the lordship of Pesaro, was enacting measures to promote local majolica makers whose works were, in her words, praised by "every connoisseur in all Italy and beyond Italy."

This exhibition is spread across two halls, the first displaying majolica decorated with themes inspired by ancient mythology, the second with pieces illustrating Homeric epics and Roman history.

Interestingly, it was the dawn of the age of printing that lay behind the labor-intensive, hand-executed work of the istoriato majolica artists. The publication of vernacular stories and translations provided multiple narratives, Biblical and classical, from which the painters could draw scenes, the poems of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" providing one of the most important single sources. Many of these books were also illustrated with woodcuts, which offered new visual references along with the texts.

The first decades of the 16th century also saw an explosion of engraving on copper plates, making available printed images of hundreds of art works, old and new, from classical sculptures and buildings to the latest frescoes and paintings by the Urbino-born Raphael (a favorite in his home territory) and other contemporary artists.

Armed with these source materials, majolica painters could deliver a rich array of literature, learning and art literally on a plate, in works that were equally admired for their brilliant permanent colors and the skills of their creators. For majolica painting did not allow for corrections, making every piece of the finest majolica a virtuoso performance.

Major pieces and sets of majolica -- like the one sent by Eleonora, duchess of Urbino, to her mother, Isabella d'Este, the widowed marchesa of Mantua in 1524, suggesting it might go well in her country villa -- were often commissioned by women, and they became an important element of fashionable interior decoration.

An understanding of the sources of Renaissance majolica imagery is essential to appreciating the significance that majolica had for its contemporary audience, a task laudably fulfilled by the juxtaposition here of contemporary woodcuts, engravings, drawings, medals, placquettes and bronzes with the majolica pieces they inspired. …

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