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Maiolica explained through the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance decorative art

This book, linked to a current exhibition, explores the V&A’s unrivalled holdings

The maiolica collection held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is unrivalled. This book, like the related exhibition of pieces selected from the museum’s holdings (until 6 May), testifies to the remarkable variety of the wares produced and the undiminished brilliance of their palette. These objects provide as vibrant and engaging a feast for the eyes and intellect today as they did when fresh from the potters’ workshops.

Italian Renaissance Maiolica is a fascinating and lavishly illustrated survey: a valuable resource for specialists and a wonderful introduction for the novice. In the preface, “The Formation of the V&A’s Maiolica Collection”, J.V.G. Mallet summarises the development of the collection from the mid-19th century. The desire to create a complete representation of each category of maiolica, together with acquisitions and a bequest from major collections, established the strong holdings to which distinguished specialist keepers, most notably Mallet and Bernard Rackham, were able to make strategic additions.

Reino Liefkes, the museum’s head of ceramics and glass, has contributed “The Making of Maiolica”, a beautifully written, comprehensive study. For his eminently clear technological explanation of its manufacture, he has drawn on the V&A’s invaluable, richly illustrated manuscript by Cipriano Piccolpasso, Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio (The three books of the potter’s art), written around 1557. This manuscript is the source of much of the technical information that we have about the making of maiolica in Renaissance Italy. Liefkes concludes with an account of our knowledge of workshop organisation and the working lives of the potters, gleaned from archival sources.

Elisa Sani’s chapters on the stylistic development of maiolica, its use and its consumption are highly informative. The V&A’s collection is so comprehensive that she is able to illustrate her text with many superb and sometimes unique examples. Ornamental motifs reflect diverse influences, from Antique grotesques to the Persian palmette and Chinese porcelain. Narrative painting (istoriato) provides an exceptionally revealing insight into the interests of the intellectual elite who prized this ware for its cultural and artistic merits. They ordered services for their tables, often decorated with mythological subjects, as well as pavements for their chapels, jars for their pharmacies and inkstands for their studies. The museum’s rich holdings include the earliest dated Italian lustreware (1501), the earliest dated intact example of narrative decoration (1503), the earliest piece with papal arms, the only known dated spindle-whorl and the only known signed works by Benedetto of Siena and Jacopo of Cafaggiolo.

It is regrettable that the book did not receive more editorial attention. Some sentences could be better structured, the vocabulary is sometimes repetitive and there are bibliographical omissions. A short section on major production centres and a conclusion would have been enhancements. Nevertheless, as a treasure house of information and a celebration of the world’s greatest maiolica collection, this publication will be a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in Italian Renaissance culture.

Italian Renaissance Maiolica

Elisa P. Sani et al

V&A Publishing, 192pp, £30 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Maiolica explained through the world’s greatest collection'