The History of Majolica Pottery

November 03 2021 – Epic Web Studios

The History of Majolica Pottery

The History of Majolica Pottery

The history of majolica is as intricate and colorful as the designs that adorn it, spanning 800 years of Italian ceramic tradition. This form of glazed pottery, renowned the world over for its vibrancy and artistry, takes its name from Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean off the coast of Moorish Spain. It was here where what became known as “majolica” (“muh-JOL-i-kuh”) was first loaded onto Valencian trade vessels en route to Italy, a country that became fast enamored with its beauty and luster. 

Origins of Majolica Pottery

Despite the name, the techniques and methods used to produce majolica didn’t originate in Majorca — those could actually be traced all the way back to the ancient Assyrians in the Middle East. The key innovation there was tin glazing (due to the presence of tin oxide), which provided a more stable base than lead-based glazing, with virtually no bleed between colors.

Tin glazing transformed earthenware items into glossy white canvases upon which elaborate designs could be painted. A second firing would then lock in that meticulously hand-painted pattern for the ages. 

Early Italian Majolica: 1300s and 1400s

The earliest Italian majolica dates back to the mid-1300s, and was much more limited in form and in color than it would eventually become. Back then, in what is referred to as the Archaic period, potters focused on producing objects with a practical use — almost exclusively tableware such as jugs, bowls, and cups (plates and platters still tended to be metal or wooden). Early Italian majolica was one of two colors — bright green (copper-infused glazes) or purplish-brown (manganese-infused glazes). Improved kilns and discovery of new glaze formulations vastly expanded the possibilities within this growing art form, up until and through the Renaissance period, when its popularity and opulence blossomed. 

Italian Majolica Styles Diversify: 1500s and 1600s

The 15th and 16th centuries were integral to the history of majolica ceramics, with certain towns and cities throughout Italy emerging with their own distinctive styles. With the exception of Siena, the most prolific majolica producers were small towns near bigger cities with whom they shared some political affiliation (and more importantly a market). Two of the most iconic examples were Montelupo (in the vicinity of Florence) and Deruta (nearby Perugia) — both of these towns were located near riverbanks rich in natural clay deposits, making them perfectly suited to the task. Others included Vietri, Grottaglia, and Monreale. 

Artisans began to employ brilliant blues, oranges, yellows, violets, and turquoise in increasingly intricate patterns, sometimes illustrating scenes from classic history, the Bible, or myth (istoriato or “storytelling” majolica). Ceramic plates and platters gradually began to take favor over their metal and wooden counterparts, with middle-class families appreciating the value over the equivalent item in silver or gold, and noble families eager to show off their collections during dining events. 

Not only did Italian majolica diversify in style during this time, it also diversified in purpose. No longer did it necessarily have to offer utility; it could be appreciated purely as an art in itself. Bowls flattened and rims became wider to include fanciful grottesche or grotesques, such as those seen in Raphael’s Loggia in The Vatican. Consequently, purely decorative majolica, such as the Derutan piatto da pompa (display plate), were made to be admired.

Majolica rooster pitcher, tray, and cannister

Decline and Revival of Italian Majolica: 1700s - 1900s

With changing tastes and the development of cheaper earthenware alternatives, Italian majolica’s popularity faded in the 17th and 18th centuries, with production in some towns ceasing altogether. Where there were once hundreds of workshops, there were now very few.  However, a renewed interest in Renaissance art during the latter half of the 19th century sparked resurgent interest in majolica ceramics, and traditional production centers such as Florence, Deruta, and Faenza rose to the occasion. 

Deruta was particularly invigorated and capitalized on the moment, establishing the Museo della Ceramica Deruta (The Regional Ceramics Museum of Deruta) in 1898 and the Communal School of Design in 1903. In tandem, the museum and school were pivotal in preserving the time-honored tradition and techniques of authentic Italian majolica so elemental to its identity.

Modern Majolica Pottery from Bellezza

Although there are many imitators and knockoffs in circulation today, true majolica is made the same way and with the same attention to detail as it has for centuries, in the same Italian towns and very often by the same Italian artisan families. At Bellezza Home, we take great pride in offering our customers only the genuine article. When you hold one of the majolica pieces we sell in your hand, rest assured you are holding a rich and storied history and heritage along with it. 


Tagged: history of majolica, italian majolica, majolica, majolica ceramics, majolica pottery