Even though majolica (or maiolica) has been around for over 500 years, the process remains the same in today’s manufacturing of Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics in this style. There are five basic steps to create majolica:
- Formation – The potter forms the piece by hand and/or with a potter’s wheel and lets it dry in the open air. Dried pieces usually are a light grey color.
- First Firing – The dried pieces are loaded into a kiln and fired at 1890° Fahrenheit to reach the bisque stage, turning a terracotta red color. Care must be taken that temperatures don’t change too rapidly as they heat up or cool down as this causes the pieces to crack.
- Glazing – Traditionally the bisque piece is dipped into a white powdery glaze that quickly dries. This provides an ideal surface for hand painting.
- Painting – Here is where artistry is key. Artists paint the piece with mineral-based glazes that leave no margin for error. Once this glaze is applied it cannot be removed or covered over. An artist might paint freehand or follow a pattern, depending on the piece. Often the glaze colors look totally different than they will on the finished piece.
- Second Firing – Here again the kiln is loaded, though the temperature for this second step is only 1690° Fahrenheit. This firing can take up to 24 hours to give pieces 12 hours of constant heat. After cooling, you have gorgeous, vibrant majolica ceramics.
With a process so labor intensive, how has majolica remained popular for so many years? Long before it was transformed by the Renaissance and became synonymous for Italian ceramics, the majolica process was used in 9th century Baghdad and Mesopotamia. The technique made its way through trade routes and the port of Majorca to Spain and Italy, where it inspired local potters.
In the late 15th century and early 16th century fine Italian ceramics meant one thing only: majolica. The form was perfect for practical items like tableware and apothecary jars, mixing function and art with ease. Even more incredible was majolica’s role in social change: instead of people eating off common large wooden platters they now used individual dishes, often decorated with a family’s coat of arms. As you would imagine, dining customs and hygiene changed greatly as a result.
But majolica doesn’t stop there. Victorian majolica, manufactured in the 19th century in Britain and the United States, follows the same process, though the glaze is different. Wedgwood and Mintons were major manufacturers, creating whimsical, creative forms for both decorative and daily use — everything from tableware to umbrella stands and candlesticks. The International Majolica Society is devoted to collectors of this exuberant period of majolica ceramics.
And today? Majolica continues its popularity in Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics, combining tradition and modernity, as well as functionality and beauty. In fact, modern majolica shares many common motifs with Italian antique ceramics and Victorian majolica. Rooted in the natural world, both traditional and modern designs often depict flower patterns or raised shapes of fruits and animals, regardless of where or when they are made. It seems clear that the timeless beauty and durability of majolica continues to make this painstaking process well worth the effort.
Victorian majolica fish image courtesy of Leon Brocard.