Italian ceramics are incredibly complex and time-intensive, especially the task of hand-painting, which is a precise skill that allows for no errors. So how has majolica been a ceramic favorite for over 500 years? Maybe looking at history will explain it all.
Before Italian Ceramics
The majolica process originated in Mesopotamia during the 9th century, though the white tin-glaze process wasn’t yet known by this name. Both practical and beautiful, the process traveled along major trade routes in these early centuries. The Moors brought majolica techniques with them to Spain and from there they made their way to Italy, usually by way of the port in Majorca (thus gaining their name).
Italian Ceramic Artists
In Italy, the conditions turned out to be perfect for the craft and Italian majolica pottery quickly took off. Faenza, Deruta, and Montelupo-Fiorentino all become production centers due to their location, natural resources, and talented artists. Italian ceramics proved extremely functional as both storage vessels and tableware — In fact, ceramic tableware actually changed Renaissance eating habits as people shifted from eating off common platters to using individual ceramic dishes! Among aristocrats, Italian style dinnerware becomes a sturdier alternative to porcelain and other more fragile ceramics.
Beyond Italy: Majolica Around the World
Of course, majolica didn’t just get made in Italy during the Renaissance. Important Spanish and Portuguese ceramic centers were also in high demand. In the 19th century the technique became the basis of Wedgwood and other companies which manufactured in the United States and Britain. Meanwhile, Central American ceramics also adopted and adapted the technique, fusing it with traditional designs that are still in use today.
Technique and Talent
The five step majolica process hasn’t changed much, which is perhaps why it remains so popular. Artists have passed the traditions and techniques down through the generations: just look at historic examples of Italian ceramics next to contemporary creations. Ornate Deruta patterns make for hand painted dinner plates that truly stand out. Tuscan cheer endues pitchers and serving platters. Looking at the end results, I feel like Italian ceramic artists will be making beautiful ceramics for generations to come, no matter how arduous the process seems to an outside observer.
Historic majolica image from Maiolica, Delft and Faïence by Giuseppe Scavizzi.