TRAVELLERS to central Italy often return with maiolica plates, jugs, cups, and dishes painted in a distinctive blue and white, with burning egg-yolk yellows from Deruta, outside Perugia.
From the cities of Siena and San Gimignano come large bowls featuring the cathedral of the one and the distinctive porcupine towers of the other. At home, I keep close guard in the kitchen of two espresso cups from Siena, featuring the owl and the unicorn, two of the crests of the 17 contrade of the city.
This has not always been the case. By the time that Caravaggio painted his Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London, currently on its way from Dublin to Edinburgh as part of the touring exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” (Arts, 2 December 2016) for Ciriaco Mattei in 1601-2 such maiolica had fallen out of fashion.
The shallow bowl in which lies a ragged old cooked chicken is in the centre of the table, half hiding the bread that the Risen Christ is about to bless. Mattei would have long relegated such unfashionable tableware to the storerooms or the back kitchen.
A century-and-a half earlier, such material goods were at the very height of fashion. No intelligent Gabriel would arrive with Interflora lilies for our Lady without a fashionable vase in which to place them, and St Mary Magdalene has often visited the local pharmacy shelves for a pot of spicy ointment. The Spezieria of Santa Fina in San Gimignano, like that at Camaldoli, houses pharmacy vases that still hold the medicinal preparations made according to age-old recipes.
By way of illustrating some of the remarkable ceramics in this show, Sam Fogg includes Giovanni Mansueti’s grisaille painting of The Supper at Emmaus (1493/95) which was in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein until it was sold at Christie’s (8 July 2008). The tavern table is set with such jugs and giraffe-necked flagons, as Turkish staff in tall stovepipe hats serve the three wayfarers.
Sam FoggAnnunciation: after Cosme Tura, Ferrara, c.1480-90, an incised slipware plateAs Timothy Wilson, the curator of the exhibition, explains in the catalogue, such 15th-century Italian maiolica was collected in the late 19th century. Such is the quality of the four dozen works selected for this small exhibition that it would not look out of place in the V&A, and it serves as a rich complement to the exhibition currently in the Fitzwilliam (Arts, 24 March 2017).
The commanding presence of the entrance hall is that of an inkwell of the 1480s, which was probably made in Faenza (hence faience), where it remained until the early 1900s. For a time, until 1951, it was owned by William Randolph Hearst.
The inkwell itself is supported by the figures of the four Virtues, and the whole remarkable work could almost be a model for a civic fountain. There is a comparably ambitious work in the medieval museum in Bologna, in which the four patrons of the city shoulder an inkwell made to resemble a fort.
Where once the wealthy had imported such items from Spain (the name “maiolica” is a corruption from “Mallorca”), the availability of local craftsmen transformed the tables and desks of the wealthy across the Italian peninsula.
More humble objects, such as the blue-and-white tall jugs featuring a lady’s head in profile and a rampant dog (both Viterbo, c.1430-50), or the pharmacy jar (albarello) with a man, viewed from the rear, raising his stick to ward off an unseen enemy, stand alongside the rich gold and green dish from Ferrara on which is depicted the Annunciation beneath a perfectly draped canopy (private collection, Spello), and offer a glimpse of a world a generation before the Reformation swept across Europe.
“Maiolica before Raphael” is at Sam Fogg, 15d Clifford Street, London W1, until 16 June. Phone 020 7534 2100. www.samfogg.com