A Treasure Trove of Images


In the Italian Renaissance, mythological and historical iconography found its way from paintings to prints and finally to maiolica pottery and bronzes.

Workshop or follower of Francesco Xanto Avelli, lustered in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539

Workshop or follower of Francesco Xanto Avelli, lustered in the workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica), diameter: 27 cm.

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In 1770, a German amateur art historian by the name of Christophe de Scheib hypothesized that the maiolica plates and tazze (footed bowls) made in Faenza were simply too beautiful and too close in composition to prints and drawings by Raphael not to have been painted by Raphael himself. Scheib’s thoughts on maiolica came a half-century before the Renaissance would begin its ascent toward a rediscovery and romanticization of epic proportions and some 75 years before French historian Jules Michelet would even coin the term “Renaissance.”

Scheib’s hypothesis was quickly, and rightly, denounced. It was already well known that maiolica vessels were the products of workshops distinct from those of painters but working from circulating printed images of painters’ masterpieces. More than two centuries earlier, Giorgio Vasari had already explained the use of prints after Raphael by potters in Urbino. Nonetheless, 19ht-century historians noted that even if these wares weren’t painted or designed by Raphael, their beauty and historical importance made them worth careful study. “They preserve what we do not have elsewhere; that is, the many different thoughts of Sanzio [Raphael] himself,” wrote French archaeological and architectural theorist Quatremère de Quincy in 1835. “We have in them an infinity of other things by Raphael and his school that no longer exist.”

With that in mind, one cannot forget that the very sources from which 16th-century potters were drawing inspiration had been attempts by contemporary artists to surpass the ancient masters. And what better way to do just that in a relatively new medium like maiolica than to mine the circulating imagery of classical antiquity as reinvented by those modern Renaissance masters? After all, as “the pottery of humanism,” as art historian Bernard Rackham called it in 1930, maiolica was capable of breathing new, polychromatic life into the recently reprinted texts of antiquity and the monochrome lines of copperplates and woodblocks.

The National Gallery of Art’s latest exhibition, “Sharing Images,” surveys this translation and transmutation of humanist, as well as biblical, ideas by painters and printmakers in Italy and northern Europe from print to pot and from print to bronze. The result of the 2015 acquisition of the William A. Clark maiolica collection from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the exhibition draws on the National Gallery’s formidable strengths in Italian and Northern Renaissance prints, drawings, ceramics, and bronzes in order to provide a focused window in on the interactions between print culture and workshop practices. “Sharing Images” and its accompanying catalogue focus in large part on the Gallery’s own impressive stores of maiolica, which make up about one-fourth of the exhibition and which actually reflect more on the taste for istoriato (history-painted) and heraldic maiolica among American collectors of the Gilded Age and beyond, such as William Clark himself, as well as Joseph E. Widener and Samuel Kress.


In “Sharing Images” Jamie Gabbarelli, Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow at the National Gallery of Art (2015–17), has found a surprisingly little-explored area in the otherwise well-trodden path of study of early modern prints and their influences on maiolica and bronze production. He considers the movement of pictures and ideas from the decorative arts back to prints, rather than only the other way around, in addition to the use of multiples as the primary source for creation of a common visual language across media in the Renaissance. He asks which prints were used most often and how fast these images were integrated into the repertoires of bronzemakers and potters. The exhibition catalogue’s preface by Jonathan Bober, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, provides a cogent synthesis of Gabarelli’s detailed study in the chapters that follow.

At the center of these questions are the many varied representations of subjects from prints in istoriato maiolica. Other 18th-century writers, evidently better informed than Scheib, had called istoriato vessels “libri dipinti” (painted books), because the depicted literary and artistic scenes were often so detailed and complex. Istoriato was the term given in the 16th century to the richly and delicately painted narrative-style maiolica that was widely collected throughout much of the 16th century and provided evidence that these ceramics should be viewed as a legitimate art form beyond the “applied” or “minor” arts. Unsurprisingly, istoriati were prized not only by later collectors enriching museums but also by elites and the bourgeois alike in the Renaissance, because of the level of technical skill required of their painters.

Before the rise of this type of painted decoration, maiolica had for the most part maintained a mostly muted palette of blue, yellow, orange, and purple-brown, as in one 15th-century plate depicting a whimsical dragon basking in a cool-hued sun surrounded by concentric guilloche bands on the rim. (Italians only figured out a recipe for iron lustre, used for centuries in the Islamic world, around 1460.) The rainbow spectrum and nuanced gradients of color on “historiated” wares would have been especially hard to master. Mistakes were nearly impossible to correct, as glazes were quickly absorbed into the unfired surface and their colors could not be seen until after firing. In his circa-1557 treatise The Three Books of the Potter’s Art, perhaps the most important surviving source for information on maiolica production, Cipriano Piccolpasso gave specific recipes for mixing pigments when painting istoriati.

One famous example of istoriato is the set presented to Isabella d’Este by her daughter, Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, in 1524. Executed by the celebrated painter Nicola da Urbino, who was known as “the Raphael of maiolica painting” and who occasionally even signed his wares, the set depicts scenes from Ovid and Virgil, as well as other mythological and biblical events. A plate from the series, now in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reproduces the drunken carousing of the coterie of a sleeping Silenus as seen through the eyes of printmaker Agostino Veneziano. But the painter, who was known to freely interpret and combine sources, truncated Agostino’s scene to fit the rounded, concave surface by moving two figures; at the far left, a man pours wine from the spout of a wineskin, unmistakably phallic in shape and location, into another drunkard’s mouth. Nicola framed the whole scene with the huge, gnarled trees from which the families’ stemme (coats of arms) hang.

The exhibition also highlights the varying approaches to print sources used by potters in different regions and even workshops, as in one plate in the Smithsonian probably made in the workshop of perhaps the second-most important maiolica painter, Orazio Fontana. Known from numerous extant maiolica versions, the composition depicts the contest of song between the Muses and the Pierides recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and taken from an engraving by Gian Jacopo Caraglio after an oil by Rosso Fiorentino. Unlike painters in the Casteldurante workshops of Fontana and his father, Guido Durantino, who illustrated the entire grouping, Urbino painter Francesco Xanto Avelli extracted Rosso’s nudes for use in other istoriato compositions in what Gabarelli calls “his cut-and-paste approach.” Though not explicitly addressed in the catalogue, the extent of Avelli’s method makes for a fun game of spotting sources. On a 1532 plate from the Clark collection that shows the obscure tale of the sinking of Seleucus’ fleet, commissioned as part of the Pucci Service, Avelli included a hunched-over nude male from the pornographic woodcuts and sonnets of I Modi (The Sexual Positions or “The Sixteen Pleasures”) by writer and satirist Pietro Aretino, after Giulio Romano and Raphael’s engraver and printer Marcantonio Raimondi. (Luke Sysan and Dora Thornton previously identified the figure as such from its appearance on another plate by Avelli at the British Museum.)

This use and reuse across media, from print to bronze to ceramic and back again, is a theme throughout the show. Artists who are known to have possessed maiolica themselves, like Andrea Mantegna, were copied by potters and bronze-makers. Mantegna’s workshop engravings enjoyed particular success. Likewise, the Laocoön and its finding in 1506 was a seemingly endless source of inspiration among artists, spurring not only the famed 1510 contest to create new arms for the main figure but also countless spinoffs in other media. Versions in ceramic and bronze in “Sharing Images” take from two engravings of the group by Marco Dente, which provided the models for Christ in the bronze relief of The Flagellation by Galeazzo Mondella, called Il Moderno, as well as for the clothed and unclothed father figure in tin-glazed variants from the workshop of Francesco Xanto Avelli. Other maiolica painters depicted the sculpture without extremities, in its found fragmentary state. In fact, the marble’s image was so enduring in the early 16th century that Titian caricatured it, turning the father and sons into a family of monkeys; the woodcut after Titian is attributed to Niccolò Boldrini. Print, the ape of fine art!

Although the show focuses on these istoriato maiolica and bronzes, it also explores the sources of unusual non-narrative imagery, including music. Ritual was often an important aspect of displaying or utilizing maiolica, be it to adorn a credenza during a banquet or as presentation pieces given to a new mother during her convalescence (and often containing prescribed foodstuffs for her). Gabarelli discusses one extant bowl containing in a central cartouche meticulously transcribed music and verse of a song from a songbook printed in 1507. Scholars surmise that the set originally included four vessels, with musical notation for four different voices, and may have been used during or after dining, not for food but instead as entertainment, to engage guests and bring song to the table.

“Sharing Images” speaks as much to these 15th- and 16th-century traditions and trends as to those in our own current moment in history, when word and image are infinitely reproducible and more accessible than ever. The connections to the present, and particularly to consumer culture, resonate even more when we think of the ways in which Renaissance artists embraced or rejected the transmission of their designs in the early days of print, and even dealt with the subsequent copyright issues. Raphael was no doubt aware of the big business in the still-young print industry when he began his collaboration with Marcantonio Raimondi in 1508, while Albrecht Dürer, whose engravings were widely used by potters in Faenza and Gubbio as well as bronze-makers, famously sued Raimondi for the transalpine success of copies of his engravings, monogram and all. Copies in other media, or illegal copies, may not have brought financial security to artists, but, as Quatremère de Quincy noted, it ensured that their compositions had a lasting and memorable impact.

What comes across in “Sharing Images” is how thoroughly modern the conception and execution of maiolica and bronzes could be during the Renaissance, when these arts were still in the process of being reshaped by the medium of print. One might even liken the two-way street of the transmission of print culture to the viral impact of new media and consumerism today. Just as people of all tax brackets today are keen to own the latest gadgets, 16th-century consumers strove to acquire the newest technological advancements. While bronzes may have been out of reach to anyone not among the cultured and moneyed elite, print and tin-glazed earthenware provided two relatively affordable and increasingly accessible examples of true novelty and ingegno (invention or genius). “Sharing Images” suggests that, through the acts of transmission and translation, copy and commodification, and going far beyond iconography, maiolica and bronzes may have still more similarities to the prints that inspired them than scholars have yet considered.


By Martina D’Amato

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: April 2018