February 02 2022 – Epic Web Studios
When it comes to identifying authentic Italian majolica (traditionally spelled maiolica), many people miss the mark — more specifically, the Italian pottery marks (aka potter’s marks) located on the object’s underside. It may be small, but the pottery mark can reveal a lot about the item’s origins. Although the absence of a potter’s mark may not necessarily indicate a fake, it’s customary for Italian artisans to include one.
In this month’s blog post, we’ll teach you how to distinguish the real deal from the im-pot-stors.
How authentic majolica is made
As you’ll recall, the term “majolica” refers to ceramic objects glazed and painted using a very specific technique that dates back over 1,000 years. Key to the process is the mineral oxide bath that provides a blank canvas upon which brilliant designs can be painted.
Majolica’s popularity peaked in the 15th and 16th centuries, dipped in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was renewed in the late 1800s into the 20th century — in part due to Brits Herbert Minton and Leon Arnoux and their development of mass-produced “imitation majolica” made affordable to the Victorian-era middle class.
The English majolica was factory-produced in mold, typically with more three-dimensional surface details than its Italian predecessors (via extensive use of relief molding). It was still hand-painted using a reference. Also like its Mediterranean forebears, it would often feature a pottery mark unique to its creator.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold and technology advanced, it became easier to replicate patterns and create cheap knockoffs with machines. Nonetheless, in places like Deruta — one of the cradles of Italian majolica — the integrity of the artform is painstakingly preserved using the same methods as centuries ago.
Finding the mark
The quickest way to find an Italian pottery mark is to flip the piece upside down and look for an unglazed portion of terracotta where the object sat in the kiln, usually a circular ring — it should still be somewhat rough to the touch. Inside this space, a mark may be stamped, etched, or painted, and its appearance may vary drastically — think of how many potters have practiced this artform throughout the centuries! It can be as simple as a single initial or something as intricate as a coat of arms.
Vintage Italian pottery marks
Vintage Italian pottery marks could be quite elaborate, potentially conveying information about:
- The painter of the piece
- The shop where they worked
- The painter’s master or overseer
- The title of the subject
On historical Majolica, it’s common to see words like bottega (shop), maestro (master), vasaro (potter), pictor (picture), fatto (made), fecit (made by), pinxit (painted by) featured somewhere in the potter’s mark, sometimes abbreviated. Marks usually took the form of stylized script or small pictograms etched or drawn by hand.
Modern Italian pottery marks
One of the telltale signs of modern Italian ceramics is the inclusion of “Made in Italy” or “Fatto in Italia” somewhere in the potter’s mark. That’s because in 1891, U.S. federal law decreed that every import be marked with its country of origin, and in 1919 the law was amended, requiring “Made in [country of origin].” Otherwise, each studio or bottega will still utilize its own unique signature — several still owned and operated by the same families as hundreds of years ago.
Spotting a fake
Although imitation majolica may look similar from afar, upon closer inspection the charade should be obvious. Here’s how to tell:
- It’s made from something other than clay. Genuine Italian majolica has always been, and always will be, a special kind of ceramic earthenware — not plastic resin.
- There’s no unglazed area underneath. Even in the event a potter’s mark is missing, it’s essential to leave a portion of the base (as in a ring or circle) unglazed to prevent sticking to the kiln as the object is fired.
- The unglazed area is too smooth. Natural clay bisque will have a slightly rough texture and is often brownish orange or off-white.
- There are no visible brushstrokes. True majolica is meticulously hand-painted by skilled artisans (in fact, it’s very common to see the phrase Dipinto a mano in modern Italian pottery marks — which means “painted by hand.”) If brushstrokes are not apparent to the naked eye, use magnification — a dot matrix indicates the object was spray-painted by a machine.
Genuine Italian pottery from Bellezza
At Bellezza, we are as passionate about sharing the work of Italian ceramicists as they are creating it. You can be assured that every piece we sell online or in our store is the genuine article, carefully crafted by hand.