Picolpasso and the Art of Majolica in 16th century Italy – Part One

Li Tre Libre Dell’Arte Del Vasaio, the three books of the potters art, was written in 1557, or very close to that year, by Cipriano Picolpasso. It is a remarkable document, and is interesting both as a guide to the methods and techniques of the production of Majolica pottery in renaissance Italy, and also for the insight it gives into the attitudes and life of it’s author.

Picolpasso was born in the early 16th century in Castel Durante, a small town in Umbria and a center of manufacture of Majolica ceramics. As later described in his famous treatise on the topography of Umbria, Le piante it I ritratti delle Citta e Terre dell’Umbria, he says, speaking of Urbino and of the virtues of Castel Durante…..they bear off the highest prize, for the making of pottery not only in all Italy but I believe in all the world, as I hope will shortly be seen in a treatise of mine on the potters art which I wrote many years ago at the request of the blessed memory of the most illustrious and most revered Cardinal de Tournon, who spent a whole year there during the time when the French descended into Italy. This passage gives an idea not only of the importance of the manufacture of Majolica ware to Castel Durante, but of the systems of patronage that operated at the time, the vicissitudes of which affected Picolpasso as much as anyone else. However I am not a scholar, and any examination I would attempt of the structure of the society of renaissance Italy would only be a poor recounting of others words. I do however recommend the introduction to the three books of of the potters art by Ronald Lightbrown of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Alan Caiger-Smith, a potter and expert on Majolica ware, both of whom also acted as editors of this edition, as it gives some insight into the world that Cipriano Picolpasso inhabited and his attempts to live by the ideals of the time, and to become a renaissance man.

The aspect of this treatise I would like to examine is its uniqueness as what could almost be described as the first ‘how to’ guide to the manufacture of a quite sophisticated and certainly beautiful and highly valued ware. The techniques of Majolica came to Italy through Spain, to Spain from the Moors from North Africa and the Middle-East, and dates back to about the ninth-century A.D. in Mesopotamia. It is, for pottery, a middle-aged tradition, but one that came into existence at a time and place that saw it spread with trade and colonization quite rapidly. Also to be considered is the fact that it was, in the early stages, an art of the Islamic world, and that world was one of considerable learning, influence and curiosity. However it wasn’t until 1301 that Abu’l Qasim of Kashan, a city in Persia famous for its ceramics, wrote his treatise that also deals with this topic. It is a much shorter document, is not illustrated, and, although I have not seen a translation, is apparently a bit obscure, as the word intriguing crops up fairly commonly in its description, and this suggests to me that it poses more questions than it supplies answers.

By comparison, the three books of Picolpasso are not only richly illustrated but are ordered in the most satisfyingly logical way. They could, even now, with a little research be used as a work-shop manual, given the one constraint of working in the same areas of Umbria and Tuscany since the raw-materials, with no possibility of analysis existing at the time, would have to be sources from the same locations to expect comparable results.

Early Maiolica dish  from Castel DuranteMajolica is, by definition, low-fired ware of a decorative nature with that decoration applied over a white ground, that ground being almost always a glaze specified with tin oxide, a colorant which when added to a glaze will, if correctly formulated enable it to cover a buff or even terra-cotta clay. The fact that it is fugitive at high temperatures was not a problem as only the Chinese wares of the time were achieved at anything much over 1,000 or 1,100 degrees centigrade, these being the upper limits to which Majolica ware was fired.

It was indeed interaction between the Islamic world and China around 800 to 900 A.D. that led to the development of Majolica There is a record in a book written in the year 1059 that says…. All Ibn Isa, governor of Khurasan, sent as a present to the Caliph Harun at Rashid, twenty pieces of Chinese imperial porcelain, the like of which had never been seen before at the Caliph’s court, in addition to two thousand other pieces of porcelain….This was presumably porcelain of the Twang period. What was admirable at the time about this porcelain, apart from any other aspects, was it’s whiteness, and this was soon to be imitated albeit by very different means to those employed in it’s original manufacture.

By Picolpasso’s time Majolica had been practiced in Italy for more than a hundred years, and had developed from an unpretentious craft to a level of sophistication and virtuosity that it was ranked alongside skills such as the making of fine jewelry. I must note at this point that tin-glazed ware had existed in Italy back to at least the 11th century in Orvetio and other places, but had never developed at those sites into what is considered true Majolica

The development of this tradition depended above-all on the exploration of drawing, color and subject matter: it was essentially painters pottery. Although the technical difficulties should not be under-estimated, it was, for example, possible to obtain with some reliability blues, ochres, green, soft-reds, black, white and the indispensable antimony-yellow, all existing on a solid white ground beneath a covering layer of clear glaze. This glaze gave depth to the surface as well as providing a functional durability, although the best of Majolica was, because of it’s value, primarily decorative rather than functional in its use, if not its form.

The Workshop
In considering the objects themselves, we should look at the place where those objects are produced, and a description of a typical medium sized workshop of the time is given by Picolpasso. Indeed the description of just such a workshop, how it functioned and produced what it did comprises the bulk of his treatise.

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