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Picol Passo and the Art of Maiolica

Documenting Medieval Ceramic Processes

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16th Century Maiolica Jar

16th century Maiolica Jar, from the Koerner European Ceramic Gallery of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada.

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Decorated Italian Maiolica Bowl ca 1575-1620

Decorated maiolica bowl of c 1575 - 1620 made in Montelupo in northern Italy showing a well-dressed gentleman, the pottery, the first of its kind to be excavated in London, was found in the city ditch outside the city walls.

MOLA / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This discussion on the history of maiolica ceramics is a must-read for late-medieval fans of ceramics. This article originally appeared in Steven Goldate's now-defunct Ceramics at About page, and I'm grateful to him for bringing it to my attention.

Picol Passo and the Art of Majolica

Li Tre Libre Dell'Arte Del Vasaio, the three books of the potter's art, was written in 1557, or very close to that year, by Cipriano Picol Passo. It is a remarkable document, and is interesting both as a guide to the methods and techniques of the production of maiolica pottery in renaissance Italy, and also for the insight it gives into the attitudes and life of its author.

Picol Passo was born in the early 16th century in Castel Durante, a small town in Umbria and a center of manufacture of maiolica ceramics. As later described in his famous treatise on the topography of Umbria, Le piante it I ritratti delle Citta e Terre dell'Umbria, he says, speaking of Urbino and of the virtues of Castel Durante..... "they bear off the highest prize, for the making of pottery not only in all Italy but I believe in all the world, as I hope will shortly be seen in a treatise of mine on the potter's art which I wrote many years ago at the request of the blessed memory of the most illustrious and most revered Cardinal de Tournon, who spent a whole year there during the time when the French descended into Italy."

This passage gives an idea not only of the importance of the manufacture of maiolica ware to Castel Durante, but of the systems of patronage that operated at the time, the vicissitudes of which affected Picol Passo as much as anyone else. However I am not a scholar, and any examination I would attempt of the structure of the society of renaissance Italy would only be a poor recounting of others words. I do however recommend the introduction to the three books of of the potter's art by Ronald Lightbown of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Alan Caiger-Smith, a potter and expert on maiolica ware, both of whom also acted as editors of this edition, as it gives some insight into the world that Cipriano Picol Passo inhabited and his attempts to live by the ideals of the time, and to become a renaissance man.

The First How To Guide for Maiolica

The aspect of this treatise I would like to examine is its uniqueness as what could almost be described as the first 'how to' guide to the manufacture of a quite sophisticated and certainly beautiful and highly valued ware. The techniques of maiolica came to Italy through Spain, to Spain from the Moors from North Africa and the Middle-East, and dates back to about the ninth-century A.D. in Mesopotamia.

It is, for pottery, a middle-aged tradition, but one that came into existence at a time and place that saw it spread with trade and colonisation quite rapidly. Also to be considered is the fact that it was, in the early stages, an art of the Islamic world, and that world was one of considerable learning, influence and curiosity. However it wasn't until 1301 that Abu'l Qasim of Kashan, a city in Persia famous for its ceramics, wrote his treatise that also deals with this topic. It is a much shorter document, is not illustrated, and, although I have not seen a translation, is apparently a bit obscure, as the word intriguing crops up fairly commonly in its description, and this suggests to me that it poses more questions than it supplies answers.

By comparison, the three books of Picol Passo are not only richly illustrated but are ordered in the most satisfyingly logical way. They could, even now, with a little research, be used as a work-shop manual, given the one constraint of working in the same areas of Umbria and Tuscany since the raw-materials, with no possibility of analysis existing at the time, would have to be sources from the same locations to expect comparable results.

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