Maiolica is the term used to define the unique and beautiful tin-glazed pottery of Italy from the Middle Ages until today. This type of pottery was not just used for traditional ceramic objects, such as bowls, dishware and jugs, but it was also used in sculpture and tiling. Maiolica is different from other pottery because of its glaze, a whitish opaque, which is made from tin-oxide, as well as other colours that were combined with it. Tin was very expensive during the Renaissance and therefore, these exclusive products were reserved for the wealthy.
To produce maiolica in a workshop, there would be approximately eight workers and each one would be given a specialized job. Someone would prepare the kiln, another the raw clay, while someone else decorated and yet another person mixed the glaze. This division of labor ensured a high level of quality control, especially as the master potter oversaw and likely owned the entire shop.
The first Italian pots and plates from the 13th century or so was decorated in only purple, browns and green, and colors mixed from those basics. Then, in 1430-60, cobalt was added and the color palate expanded. This color range further expanded over the following decades so that by the early 16th century, a full range of colors was available. At this time, luster colors were added too, and even became the specialty colors of a few particular workshops. Luster colors included metallic versions of pink and gold which was achieved through a special “third baking” about which potters were very secretive. Designs were varied and often included animals, floral motifs and geometrical patterns, as well as complex mythological scenes.
During the 15th century, Florence led the pack in production of maiolica wares. However, it wasn’t long before Naples, Rome and Faenza were also making beautiful maiolica pottery. Eventually, Rome and Venice began producing it and the style had truly taken off. In fact, it was even being created in workshops as far away as Sicily.
Today, you can appreciate maiolica throughout Tuscany. Many museums include a few pieces, though two have larger collections in which you can observe the stylistic and technical progress described above.
Tuscany has one museum entirely dedicated to this medium, the Museum of Ceramics of Montelupo. This museum has over 21,00 square meters and three floors of exhibition space. It also features a 400 square meter outdoor area and a cafeteria and bookshop. Here, you can view examples of maiolica from the 14th and 15th centuries to today, as well as an interesting reconstruction of a Medieval dining table – set with typical tableware. Montelupo is still an important manufacturing hub for pottery and so it makes sense they would dedicate such an impressive space to this art form. If you take a stroll down the main street here, most of the stores sell maiolica, some with the traditional patterns of Montelupo, others experimenting with more contemporary forms.
In Florence, the National Museum of the Bargello also has an important, high quality collection of ceramic and maiolica pieces. Although it takes up just one room, there are pieces from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance in almost every style native to central Italy. In this collection, you will see jugs, plates, vases and larger pottery pieces, with a high concentration of mythological or narrative scenes, many of which were made in Umbria. Interestingly, Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany, had a large collection of pottery and most of it is now at the Bargello. It’s fun to imagine the descendants of Lorenzo il Magnifico enjoying a lively conversation, wine and food surrounded by the very same plates that are on display.
While in Florence, if you find yourself enamored enough with this type of pottery, it might be worth purchasing some of it for your own home. One shop, Sbigoli, open since 1857, produces their own maiolica pottery right in Florence and ther’re located close to the Bargello. You can also find maiolica shops throughout Tuscany in other small towns and villages, where owners are usually happy to talk about how they follow, or depart from, the tradition of maiolica in Tuscany.