Book Review: Marvels of Maiolica by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio

I recently bought a book on Amazon, intended as a visual and historical reference for the maiolica dragon plate I am glazing. It was published in 2004.

“Marvels of Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art Collection” by Jacqueline Marie Musacchio.

Marvels of Maiolica, a book showcasing the William Clarke Collection at the Concoran Museum of Washington, D. C.

First off, I was surprised by its size, it’s a 6.5 inch by 6.5 inch book, much smaller than I anticipated. My fault for not looking at the listing before purchase.

I was excited to buy it, since it showcased the Washington D.C. Corcoran Gallery, which included the plate I mentioned above. Sadly, the plate I am working on is not included.

The book includes color photos, many are full page, (6.5×6.5) but several are approximately thumbnail sized.

There is an appendix in the back of the book with the height, weight and length dimensions as well as the current (as of publication date) location of each photographed piece and when and where it can be attributed to.

The book as a whole surprised me. After noticing its size, I was expecting it to be mostly photos and some slight documentation about the pieces included in the gallery.

However, Musacchio provokes thought and presents concepts that are not accepted by Caiger-Smith, Poole or Watson and their previous published works.

I liked the concise overview. It did discuss facets I hadn’t researched yet, like workshop specialization, and vocabulary changing over time. Later in the book she discusses the cost of maiolica and how it was accessible to all societal levels. Then she finishes with the theory that most maiolica was used to eat on as well as easily change shape to serve many varied functions.

Chapter 1 Marvels of Maiolica

She gives a brief overview on ceramic history and the process of creating and finishing a piece of maiolica, and goes as far to say the art itself is older than originally suggested.  That it was a lost art form, and was revived by the Islamic potters to emulate white Chinese porcelain.

She said the tin-glazed pieces almost immediately arrived in Italy as building ornamentation, and everyday usage.  By the 14th century Italian artisans and in some cases whole towns began to specialize in different styles of painting.

She discusses the multi-step process for pottery production with passages from what I call the “maiolica bible” Cipriano Piccolpasso’s “The Three Books of the Potters’ Art (I tre libri dell’arte del vasaio,” an unpublished manuscript written in 1527 by a pottery workshop observer.  It is a handwritten and hand drawn manuscript, currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

"Ceramists Shaping Wares" circa 1557, sketch from Cipriano Piccolpasso's "The Three Books of the Potters' Art." It shows potters working on the wheel and in the studio, shaping clay.

“Ceramists Shaping Wares” circa 1557, sketch from Cipriano Piccolpasso’s “The Three Books of the Potters’ Art.”
It shows potters working on the wheel and in the studio, shaping clay.

Musacchio said by the 13th century ceramicists in Valencia, Spain had perfected a third firing process of adding iridescent metallic oxides to the pieces, also known as luster.

She said the lusterware was imported heavily from Spain and was not replicable successfully in Italy until mid to late 15th century.

Vocabulary changes over time

She describes the origins of maiolica as I’ve come to understand them from Caiger-Smith and other ceramic archeologists, that it is most likely from the Italianization of the Spanish phrase “ Obra de Mallequa,” Malaga wares. Or could also be an acknowledgement of the port city where most tin-glazed pieces were shipped from, Majorca.

She discusses something interesting in the history portion of the gallery review, the “loosening of vocabulary.”  I’ve noticed this by mistake, I wrote documentation for a competition and used “lusterware” interchangeably with maiolica.

I came to understand later that the definition “lusterware” meant the ceramic piece included a metal oxide third firing in the process to create what was sometimes described as iridescent or metallic sheen, similar to mother of pearl.

However, the later you look in period maiolica production, the looser the term becomes. As time passed, and Italians began to also create opalescent sheens on their pieces, they gave them the same title of “lusterware” and eventually called all maiolica lusterware,  regardless of its chemical composition.

Chapter 2 Ornamentation and Desirability

I loved this chapter and its description of how artists used local events and paintings as inspirations for their works, as well as how decorations changed over time.  It was interesting, especially since I have yet to research past 1525, right at the cusp of what I call the “big boom.”

Late 15th century brought a boom of istoriato  style maiolica, which depicted historical or biblical events, including political satire.  The pieces were painted with narrative scenes of classical history with compositions pulled from contemporary painters.

Mid 16th century moved  istoriato to the platter’s border, which brought on the name grottesche or grotesques. As the century progressed, the grotesques morphed from the outer borders into the central charge as cherubs holding an owner’s or family’s coat of arms.

I think the coolest part about this chapter was the explanation about price, showing that because of the cheap materials, and high volume of imports from Spain, and production in Italy, maiolica was attainable by both noble and peasant.

She said, “ According to one estimate, 200 pieces of  istoriato could be bought for the same price as one silver salt. In another case, an entire service of 84 assorted pieces cost only the equivalent of three to four months of unskilled labor.”

She also said that many pieces have heraldry that is not easily identifiable, or has no noble record, which means that the patrons were not historically wealthy or famous.

But at the same time maiolica was popular and elite buyers would commission exquisite pieces that they treasured, not because of price, but due to prowess and skill in execution of each piece.

Chapter 3 Function & Form

This was an exciting chapter.

She tackled the idea of maiolica being used to eat off of, stating that a Florentine kept a set of 72 dishes in chests in his bedroom, the safest and most important place in the house. That would not have taken up prime real estate without seeing consistent use.  It was cool to get this different perspective.  She said that forks were not widely used until late 17th century. She said when individual forks arrived from Byzantium in the 14th century, they were used ceremoniously, but not actively to eat with.

She carried the idea that people of the time period still used their hands, and bread to eat with.  Thus the production of maiolica wash basins.

I was amazed at how she described the creation of all the ceramic possibilities; from the everyday, white, used-till-it-broke tin-glazed dishes; to tondos, birthing bowls, ewers, water cisterns, apothecary jars, ink wells, candle holders, food platters and plaques for the wall.

Musacchio said that even though maiolica was accessible to everyone, it was coveted and collected by the noble class. That when a plate would break, it would still be inventoried and kept with the other dishes, and if possible it would be returned to the workshop for repairs.

She did a decent job looking at maiolica from the social aspect; a view I had not considered before reading this book.  A lot of the historical research she is pulling from are family inventories, 15th century books on manners, cook books and shipping manifests.

She did a great job of piecing things together.  This may not be the best first source for documentation and research, but the text itself is a great overall summary of the usage and importance of maiolica in the Italian Renaissance.

I believe I paid $12 on Amazon. I’d say it’s worth it, and I will be delving into and searching for a few of it’s cited sources as time progresses.

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this book review, it was my first, but not the last.


Madelena de Orozco


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