One of my favorite types of pottery is Italian dinnerware, a form of majolica pottery. The styles of Italian majolica, with detailed patterns hand-painted in bold colors on a white background, are rich in history and tradition. Many of the styles currently produced date back to the renaissance and earlier. Not only do they have historical significance, they are pieces of beauty. Tuscan designs evoke a sense of the fertile Italian countryside, with lush fruits, leaves, and insects. Other traditional majolica styles have strong ties to renaissance art, depicting the mythical beasts from the frescos of Raphael.
Majolica is a tin glazed earthenware pottery that originated in Mesopotamia, likely in attempts to mimic the white porcelain wear from china with the more readily available dark-colored earthenware clays. Tin added to the glaze creates an opaque white finish, ideal for setting off decorations in other colors.
The name Majolica comes from the Spanish port town Majorca, from where Hispano-Moresque lusterware was imported to Italy. During the 1300s and 1400s, this ware from Spain was known as majolica, but by the 1500s, Italian potteries began to produce majolica as well. The art form later spread across Europe, and firms such as Minton and Wedgwood began producing majolica ware. These wares became popular and are still popular collector’s items today.
Italy became a major area of majolica pottery production, in part, because of its rich clay deposits along the riverbanks of the Arno and Tiber. These rivers run through Tuscany and Umbria, the regions of Italy most known for majolica. In Umbria, Deruta pottery is most notable, however the nearby town of Gubbio is also a thriving center of majolica production. Montelupo is the main pottery production center In Tuscany.
Italian ceramics are a significant part of Italian history and tradition. Today, Italian majolica ware is still in production and available in the form of functional dinnerware and tableware. These Italian plates, platters, bowls, pitchers, canisters, tiles, and many other items are popular home décor items.
Modern production is in the tradition of old but with some advancements that improve productivity and safety. Modern kilns yield higher productivity with fewer pieces lost due to imprecise firing. New glaze formulas that do not contain lead make the finished pieces food safe to modern standards.
Selecting Italian Dinnerware
When choosing Italian dinnerware set, consider quality of the work, safety of the glazes and style of decoration.
Quality of the ware is evident by looking closely at the designs. To identify hand painted dinnerware pieces, look for slight variation in the repeated designs. Printed designs are nearly identical. The greater the quality, the more smooth and crisp the linework is. Additionally, density and complexity of the patterns indicate greater value. Lesser quality pieces often have more white space left unpainted than quality pieces.
Traditianlly, many majolica ware glazes contained lead. Today we know that lead is toxic and that it can leach out of ceramic glazes into food and drink, particularly with acidic foods. Pottery produced today that is intended for food should be certified food safe. Before purchasing any pieces that will be used for food, look for this certification.
Some of the major styles of Italian majolica dinnerware that developed in history have lines still in production today. Two of the better-known Umbrian styles are Ricco Deruta and Raffaellesco. Well-known Tuscan pottery styles are Toscana and Frutta. Other cultures influence the styles as well, as seen in the Geometrico patterns reminiscent of ancient Greek designs and Arabesco, inspired by Islamic designs.
Image credits: ThatsArte.com, used with permission.