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Maiolica. Italian Faience in the Time of the Humanists

From 12 October 2011 to 27 February 2012

Musée de la Renaissance, château d’Ecouen

Exhibition website

An exhibition organised by the Musée national de la Renaissance, Château d’Ecouen and the Rmn-Grand Palais, with the collaboration of the Musée du Louvre.

Nourished by the Humanists’ active rediscovery of ancient texts, art flourished in all fields in Renaissance Italy, particularly ceramics. Known as “maiolica” in Italy, faience was particularly suitable for ornamental or historiated decoration inspired by the repertoire of Antiquity and enhanced by a glossy lustre and splendid colours.

This exhibition shows about a hundred pieces of ceramic from museums in France (Musée national de la Renaissance à Ecouen, Musée du Louvre, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Musée Antoine Vivenel in Compiègne...), Britain (British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Ashmolean Museum in Oxford...) and Italy (Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Museo Correr in Venice, Bargello in Florence...). It is divided into several sections and explores how maiolica and its decoration was influenced by the artistic, historical and literary approaches specific to the Humanist movement in Italy between 1480 and 1530.

The first section deals with the renewal of decorative motifs in the late 15th century, with the apparition and success of all’antica motifs. An extravagant world of fantastic creatures, half-human half-animal, dolphins, masks, putti, vases, horns of plenty, trophies and other grottesche covered vases, the border of dishes and plates, and paving tiles in various centres of production, attached in some way to major art centres such as Siena or Perugia.

The second section looks at heraldic motifs used to decorate ceramics (coats of arms, imprese, mottos), with a focus on the earliest “services” and the often obscure relationship between artists and patrons. In particular, it brings together a large number of pieces from the service belonging Isabella d’Este, marchesa of Mantua (1474-1539), which was decorated by Nicola da Urbino, the greatest maiolica painter in the Renaissance, towards 1524.

Portraits of real people or idealised figures, historical or mythological characters are the subject of the third section. For the oldest pieces, made in the late 15th century, it explores their role in the apparition of a istoriato or historiated decoration, which is generally thought to have emerged about 1500 in various production centres such as Deruta, Gubbio, Faenza or the Duchy of Urbino.

The largest section of the exhibition is naturally dedicated to historiated ceramics. From the earliest examples, around 1500, maiolica painters used iconographic and literary themes treated by the artists and humanists of the second half of the 15th century. They drew on contemporary graphic sources, mainly illustrated books and engravings. About sixty pieces of ceramic will illustrate themes taken from history (biblical, Roman or contemporary), mythology (episodes from the Trojan War, The Aeneid, legends about the founding of Rome, the loves and metamorphoses of the gods), but also from fables and popular stories or allegorical subjects which remain hard to decipher. The production centres and various painters represented bear witness to the quality and originality of these works (Cafaggiolo, Faenza, Deruta, Gubbio, the Duchy of Urbino with Nicola da Urbino, “Milan Marsyas Painter”, Casteldurante…). Several flagship works from the Museo Correr in Venice, on display for the first time in France, are grouped around Nicola da Urbino, a major artist in the Duchy of Urbino in the 1520s. The argument of the exhibition will be reinforced by a number of illustrated contemporary editions (Virgil, Livy, Ovid) whose texts and images strongly inspired maiolica in the first third of the 16th century.

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