Photo: Paul Macapia



This plate is an example of a narrative style of decoration known as istoriato (literally, storied), which treats tin-glazed earthenware as a canvas-a ground for finely painted historical, genre, mythological and, in this case, biblical scenes that bring realism and perspective to ceramic art. Tin-glazed earthenwares (maiolica) with istoriato decoration were considered important works of art in their own time and are respected today as one of Renaissance Italy's finest artistic achievements.

The scene on this plate is most likely the Adoration of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). As the Israelites fled from Egypt, Moses was called by God to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. During his forty days of absence, the people grew restless and longed for a god to protect them. Aaron took the gold and precious jewels of the Israelites and fashioned the Golden Calf. Moses returned to find his people worshipping the idol.
2 1/4 x 15 7/8 in. (5.7 x 40.3 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased December 6, 1948 from R. Stora & Company
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Bridging Cultures

Jug, late 12th century, Persian, 50.93
Chinese Tang dynasty (618-906) porcelain that arrived in the Middle East via the Silk Road and sea routes across the Indian Ocean greatly influenced Islamic potters. Kaolin clay, necessary in the production of porcelain comparable to Chinese wares, weathers from granite, a stone not found in the sandy environs of the Middle East. In an attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain, the potters of ninth-century Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Persia (modern day Iran) perfected a white, opaque glaze by adding tin oxide to a clear lead glaze. The particles of suspended tin oxide reflected the light and gave their thick-walled, buff-colored pottery a white surface suitable for painted decoration.

Click on the images below to continue the story.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Jingdezhen ware, 14th century, Chinese, 76.7
With the Middle Eastern market in mind, fourteenth-century Jingdenzehen potters used clay molds to produce these large plates. Their massive size and form suited Middle Eastern and Indian eating customs, by which guests dined communally from such dishes. Molds made possible the mass production of dishes of uniform size and design. This plate masterfully integrates the two decorative techniques of molding and painting.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Drug Jar, 14th century, Islamic, 60.44
Iridescent luster decoration was one of the finest techniques developed by Islamic potters, first in Mesopotamia and later in Egypt, Persia, Spain and Italy. The shimmering luster decoration on this jug involved a complicated formulation composed primarily of silver and copper oxides.

Islamic armies marched west in the eighth century, conquering most of Spain, and gradually Islamic potters carried the art of tin glazing and luster decoration across northern Africa and into Spain. This fourteenth-century Islamic drug jar with luster decoration bears calligraphy that is typical for the regions of North Africa or Spain.  Islamic potters took the shape of this drug jar from a column of bamboo, the traditional Indonesian container for medicines.
Dish, ca. 1500-35, Spanish, Manises, 46.36
As the tin-glaze and luster traditions moved into Moorish Spain, the shimmering metallic decoration inspired the term "golden ware." This dish represents the end of the great Spanish luster tradition of the mid-thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Its molded, spiral gadrooning around the broad rim imitates Renaissance metal work, but the dish derives other decorative motifs from Islam-the six-spoked wheel designs, an interlocking lacy pattern and florecillas, or little flowers.
Plate, ca. 1520-25, Italian Deruta, 47.79
It is uncertain how the knowledge of producing tin-glazed earthenware first arrived in Italy. Possibly it crossed east from Spain. Hispano-Moresque lusterwares exported through the isle of Majorca to Italy were called maiolica. Later the name was applied to Italian tin-glazed wares of the Renaissance. Potteries producing metallic luster glazes were established in Italy at both Deruta and Gubbio by 1500.

This plate features the characteristic straw-yellow, iridescent luster of Deruta, Italy. Islamic motifs are combined with an iconic Christian scene. The border retains overlapping scale patterns and other geometric designs from the Islamic tradition, creating a strong rhythm with the symmetrical European acanthus scroll and abstract vegetal motifs. In the well of the plate is a scene of Saint Francis (1181-1226) receiving the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, symbolized by fine blue lines connecting the kneeling saint and the figure on the cross.
Plate, ca. 1560, Fontana Workshop, Italian, Urbino, 56.268
Maiolica techniques continued to spread as potters traveled throughout Italy. Many settled in and around Urbino, where a decorative style called istoriato developed. This plate was created in the famous Fontana workshop in Urbino. It was probably designed by the artist Battista Franco (ca. 1500-1561).

This plate illustrates the mythological story The Rape (Theft) of Helen, from a poem written in Greek by Colluthus, an Egyptian poet who flourished in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The narrative recounts when Eris, the goddess of discord, arrived uninvited at a banquet held by Zeus. Angry that she had not been included, she threw a golden apple (the Apple of Discord) into the festive crowd. The apple was inscribed "For the fairest one." Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Zeus was unwilling to judge which of the three was fairest and declared that the Trojan prince Paris would make the judgment. Each of the contestants attempted to bribe Paris: Hera promised to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite offered the love of the world's most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite and won the fair Helen, but also the animosity of the Greeks. The Greek campaign to retrieve Helen from Paris at Troy is the mythological justification for the Trojan War.

The Porcelain Trade

White, translucent porcelain produced in China inspired imitation in countries where it was a rare, imported treasure. Maiolica, the tin-glazed earthenware of Renaissance Italy, is one part of that intriguing cross-cultural story.
Jingdezhen ware, 14th century, Chinese, 76.7
Photo: Paul Macapia


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, "Medieval, Renaissance & Baroque Galleries", December 24, 1998 - December 24, 1999, (12/24/1998-12/24/1999)
Published ReferencesMallet, J.V.G. The Painter of the Coal-Mine Dish in Italian Renaissance Pottery. Edited by T. Wilson. London 1991, pp. 62-73.

Mallet, J.V.G. One artist or two? The painter of the so-called ‘Della Rovere’ dishes and the painter of the Coalmine service, Faenza 89 (2003), nos. 1-6, pp. 50-74.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 55.

Italian Treasures in the U.S.: An Itinerary of Art. Edited by Renato Miracco. Rome: Gangemi Editore International Publishing, 2015, reproduced p. 202.

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