Maiolica dish depicting Ceres

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Venice, Italy
C. 1560-1570
21 cm

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Ceres was a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. She was originally the central deity in Rome's so-called plebeian or Aventine Triad, then was paired with her daughter Proserpina in what Romans described as "the Greek rites of Ceres". Her seven-day April festival of Cerealia included the popular Ludi Ceriales (Ceres' games). She was also honoured in the May lustratio of the fields at the Ambarvalia festival, at harvest-time, and during Roman marriages and funeral rites.

Maiolica, the refined, white-glazed pottery of the Italian Renaissance, was adapted to all objects that were traditionally ceramic, such as dishes, bowls, serving vessels, and jugs of all shapes and sizes. It was also used as a medium for sculpture and sculptural reliefs, as well as floor and ceiling tiles. Maiolica is distinguished by its white, opaque glaze, due to the presence of tin oxide, a powdery white ash. Tin was an expensive imported substance, which made maiolica a far more expensive commodity than ordinary pottery. Great care was taken to refine and shape the local clays, which varied considerably in color and weight. A maiolica workshop would have consisted of about eight workers, each with a special task—gathering fuel, preparing and firing the kilns, preparing the raw clay, throwing or molding it into shapes, mixing and applying the glaze, and decorating it with ceramic pigments. All worked under the leadership of a master potter, who in most cases would have owned the workshop. Florence led the way in the fifteenth century in the production of maiolica. The output of the city’s workshops represented a technical and aesthetic advance on the process as it was learned from Islamic Spain (it is not known who introduced the technique into Italy). Before the turn of the sixteenth century, important centers in Naples, Pesaro, Faenza, Rome, and Deruta were making fine maiolicas. From the sixteenth century, surviving examples of great beauty were made in Forlì, Cafaggiolo, Castel Durante, Rome, Urbino, and Venice, as well as several places in Sicily. For important commissions, sources of design were either new drawings incorporating the arms and insignia of the client for one-of-a-kind pieces, or prints and other available drawings that were often repeated in an early form of mass production for a larger popular market.


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