*** DEBUG END ***

Having it on a plate  

19 May 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on the charm of pre-Reformation maiolica

Sam Fogg

Christogram: a “Santa Fina” jug inscribed with YHS (a medieval version of IHS), Florentine region (probably Montelupo), c.1480

Christogram: a “Santa Fina” jug inscribed with YHS (a medieval version of IHS), Florentine region (probably Montelupo), c.1480

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

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)

*Until the end of June: we’re doubling the number of free articles to eight, to celebrate the publication of our Platinum Jubilee double issue.