Maiolica at the Ashmolean

Oxford is shivering in the mid-November chill when I visit the maiolica room. Everything outside is tinted bluey-grey by the dingy afternoon light, and the trees are stripped of their autumn colours, their branches naked against the cold sky. But inside, in the maiolica room, the air is filled with Italian sunshine. It is a room of raw, vibrant colours. Lush green, deep ochre-yellow, fizzing orange and sapphire blue sing out of the vessels, plates and ornaments. Each piece is like a ripe fruit, fresh and bright, glowing with an earthy summer warmth.

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Maiolica takes its name from the island of Mallorca, where it was wrongly thought to have originated. In reality it came from Islamic Valencia and it started to be imported to Italy in the 15th century. Characterised by its glossy tin glaze and coveted for its luxurious qualities, it became immensely popular among those who could afford it. By the 16th century major workshops producing Italian maiolica had sprung up in Florence, Naples, Rome and Urbino (to name a few) and each fiercely guarded their clay recipes. The technique for producing it was complex and required a high level of skill. The earthenware would first be fired, then dipped in a bath of glaze known as the ‘bianco’. This was composed of tin oxide, which was an expensive import. Once dried, it would be painted before undergoing a second firing that fused pigments and glaze together. It was the idea of Luca della Robbia, the most famous maiolica artist, to combine the glaze and the pigment so that they formed a solid layer of brilliant colour. Maiolica was expensive, exotic, beautiful and skilfully made. Everyone wanted it.

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Maiolica from Islamic Spain

Maiolica became part of the paraphernalia of Renaissance domestic life, at least for those who were reasonably well off. It is so wonderful to look at because it reminds us that Renaissance art is the visual culture of the everyday, the decorative objects of the home, as well as the marble giants and sublime paintings that we are so familiar with. The stories told on these wares are often the stories we know from the great paintings: Adam and Eve in Eden, the Flight into Egypt, Jupiter transformed into a bull, and those obscure Classical stories that the educated classes loved to show off their knowledge of. But instead of the grandeur that we tend to associate with Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture, these objects tell their stories with characterful quirkiness. They have a down-to-earth, humble quality to them despite their luxuriousness. The figures are not always properly proportioned, the colours are there for the sake of aesthetic pleasure rather than tonal effects, and you can often clearly see the strokes of the craftsman’s brush. This gives them a brilliant, fresh immediacy and a vivid human touch.

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My favourite plate on display – the one that caught my eye amidst the blaze of shimmering colour – is the one depicting God creating the animals. God’s arms are stretched out in joy and his cloak billows out behind him in a whorl of rich yellow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the figure of God look so happy (even gleeful) in Renaissance art. And of course he is so happy: look at the fantastic menagerie of animals he has created. It is a zoological melting pot, brimming with character and energy. Each animal is naturalistic and recognisable, down to the grasshopper by God’s feet, but at the same time they have a mystical, otherworldy quality that reminded me of Piero di Cosimo’s Forest Fire (also in the Ashmolean). There is something human about their faces, and their arbitrary gathering in a non-illusionistic space makes this a freer, archaic sense of the natural world.

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It was a while before I noticed the obvious paradox in this plate. Why are there buildings on the hillside when humans have not yet been created? Perhaps it is a vision of Heaven, or a town familiar to the owner. For my part, I think that it’s simply there to expand the world of the image, to evoke a beautiful and mythical space. It’s a kind of stage-set that isn’t important to the play’s narrative but adds to the atmosphere that soaks into the audience. It is the backgrounds, as much as the narratives, that make many of these maiolica ceramics so captivating. Blue craggy mountain peaks, crescent moons, strange Classical follies, swirling streams, yellow sunsets, curlicued clouds. They are luscious evocations of a half-real natural world, soaked in sensuous colour.

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Seeing so many maiolica items crowded together in one room makes it hard to isolate just one and to look at it closely. But once we do, it is extremely rewarding. Its physicality gives us a sense of it as an object that was handled and shown off, part of the fabric of a home. Our eyes can trace the brushwork (and spot the mistakes!), connecting us to a craftsman’s workshop 500 years ago. The glimmering colours, the arcane narratives, the passion and energy of the figures, the sheer strangeness of the scenes, makes each painted dish a little window into the Renaissance imagination.

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