The History of Pottery: Amazing Maiolica


I have recently become slightly obsessed with the history of pottery, particularly a type known as maiolica, ever since I started reading the book, World Ceramics by Robert J. Charleston. I started reading this book because of a general interest I had in pottery, but as I explored the long history of ceramics, I realized I was enamored with their beauty. While there is a ridiculous number of different pottery types, in this article I want to discuss maiolica specifically.

Maiolica is a type of earthenware pottery glazed with a white tin glaze. It is known as faience in France and Talavera in Spain and South American countries. In Italy, it was particularly popular during the Renaissance. Maiolica can come in virtually any form from tiles and plates to jugs and bowls. However, some maiolica from the Renaissance contains impressive sculptures or intricate paintings known as istoriato.

history of pottery

Maiolica is characterized by a glaze that is whitened due to the presence of tin oxide in the glaze. During the Renaissance, lead-glazed pottery was the norm and it was cheap as well. On the other hand, tin oxide was a more expensive commodity so maiolica was considered a more lavish kind of pottery. There were even pottery workshops that exclusively made maiolica because of how intricate the process was to make it.

History of Pottery

These workshops usually consisted of eight workers with their own tasks. Some might provide fuel for the kiln, some might mold the clay, and some might create and paint on the glaze. All the workers would have worked under the rule of a master potter who also often owned the workshop. Maiolica pottery would be created by dipping unglazed pottery into the tin glaze.

The tin glaze was a mixture of not only tin oxide but lead as well as water and acacia gum. Once the glaze was completely dry, a painter could paint designs over the glaze. The painter would have to be careful when doing this because if he made a mistake, he would not be able to fix it very easily because of how the glaze would absorb paint. Similar to the glaze, the paints used for pottery were also made of metal oxides.

A Guide to Collecting Majolica Pottery | Martha Stewart

Tin glaze alone is a nice tone of white but not very shiny or bright. In the late Renaissance, potters decided to give their tin-glazed maiolica an extra brilliance by painting a clear layer of glaze over the original glaze. Also during this time, there was no limit to what colors could be used for maiolica pottery unlike the earlier part of the Renaissance. For a long time, Florence was Italy’s top producer of maiolica, but later on, in the 15th century, other Italian cities started to adopt the production of maiolica.

Maiolica workshops found great business from those who wanted specially commissioned maiolica pieces. For example, some families would want their coat of arms or family insignias on particular pieces of maiolica pottery. Maiolica as it was known through most of the Renaissance with its intricately painted designs started to decline in the late 16th century. However, maiolica did not completely disappear.

The Details

In France, a certain type of maiolica continued to flourish because of the potter Domenico Tardessir of Faenza. Faenza started to produce the usual tin-glazed maiolica in France but without the typically lavish decorations. Instead, this maiolica was mostly left white and with few decorations.

faience | pottery | Britannica

It became known as bianchi di Faenza or, in French, faience blanche . Usually, the only decoration painted on bianchi di Faenza would be a coat of arms or a few flowers. Bianchi di Faenza ceramics was no longer considered as lavish as maiolica originally was. It was convenient for everyday use and remained popular well into the 19th century.

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