Exuberant Grotesques: Renaissance Maiolica from the Fontana Workshop
September 15, 2009, through January 17, 2010
Maiolica today refers to tin-glazed earthenware produced in Italy during the fourteenth, ﬁfteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Until the sixteenth century, however, the term maiolica referred to the objects that had inﬂuenced Renaissance potters: Hispano-Moresque ceramics and other lusterwares, often exported to Italy through the island of Majorca (once called Isola di Majolica).
Italian Renaissance maiolica is remarkable for its rich and colorful decoration. Once shaped on a foot-powered wheel or mold and ﬁred, the objects were dipped into a white glaze called bianco, a mixture of lead and tin oxides. The dried glaze provided a perfect surface, at once white and opaque, for decoration.
Some types of decoration became the specialty of a particular center of production, and sometimes of a workshop. This was the case with the bizarre creatures, playful satyrs, and cameo-like medallions delicately painted in bright colors on a white ground, as seen on the pieces presented in this exhibition. These fantastic ﬁgures were known as grotesques, grottesche in Italian, a term ﬁrst used in 1502 to describe the painted ornamentation found on the walls of antique houses, then known as grotte, that had recently been excavated in Rome. Around 1519 Raphael and his students painted the Vatican loggias with similarly colorful grotesques on a white ground, creating a decades-long trend in interior decoration. In the early 1560s, grotesques began appearing on objects from the maiolica workshops of Urbino, Raphael’s native city.
This kind of decoration seems to have been the specialty of the Fontana workshop in Urbino, and speciﬁcally of Orazio Fontana (1510–1571), to whom the best pieces are usually attributed. Orazio trained with his father, Guido Durantino, who owned an important workshop that attracted the era’s most talented maiolica painters. Orazio left his father’s business in 1565 and opened his own workshop at the age of ﬁfty-ﬁve, immediately achieving widespread renown. At Orazio’s death in 1571, his nephew Flaminio Fontana took over the business, continuing for several years to produce maiolica in the Fontana workshop tradition. The high quality of the six pieces presented here suggests that all were made by or under the direction of Orazio or Flaminio Fontana.
The most common sources for maiolica painters working in Urbino in the 1560s and 1570s were illustrated bibles and prints that reproduced works by leading sixteenth-century painters. The delicate grotesques developed in the Fontana workshop derived mainly from a set of etchings known as Les Petites Grotesques by the French architect, designer, and engraver Jacques Androuet I Du Cerceau (1510–1584). In most cases, the maiolica painters freely interpreted Du Cerceau’s motifs, adding ornaments and accessories or slightly modifying a ﬁgure’s pose. In some instances, however, they copied Du Cerceau’s original literally, simply adding color to the black-and-white motifs.
Such ﬁne maiolica pieces were never purely functional objects. These dishes, vases, and basins that we admire today for their artistic quality were usually shown together on credenze, or sideboards, and occasionally used in formal banquets, creating an impressive display of taste and wealth.
The exhibition is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. The accompanying catalogue has been generously underwritten by the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation.