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Object of the Month: March 2023

Majolica Vases

Glazed terracotta

Italian, 16th or 17th century

Earthenware that has been coated with a white glaze and then decorated with other pigmented glazes was first made in Africa around the 6th century. By the 13th century multi-colored designs were possible. A final clear glaze added luster and insured the pieces were watertight. Large quantities of decorative earthenware were produced in Africa and Spain and passed through ports on the island of Majorca on their way to Italy.  Thinking the colorfully painted pieces had originated in Majorca, Italians called them majolica.

By the 16th century, techniques for producing majolica had reached Italy. As would be expected, Italian ceramicists stretched the artistic limits of the medium. Although many early majolica pieces were purely functional and received little decoration, others were elaborately decorated and served as status symbols. In wealthy homes large collections of vibrant dishes, bowls, platters, pitchers, jars, and vases were displayed and used to impress guests.

However, many Renaissance majolica containers were used for storage. In the kitchen, these useful jars stored liquids, grains, nuts, dried fruits and the like. What an apothecary of the period might keep in one can only be imagined. Generally larger majolica containers did not have lids. They usually have a short neck, and the opening has an everted edge, allowing the jar to be covered with cloth, paper, or leather and tied in place over the mouth with a string or strap around the jar’s neck.

Smaller Renaissance majolica containers were rectangular boxes or cylinders with concave sides. The lack of handles permitted them to be stored close together on a shelf, and their shape allowed handling without slipping. Larger vessels were generally spherical or, like M&G’s, ovoid with the smaller end toward the bottom. Today these larger containers are often called majolica vases, though their original purpose wasn’t decorative.

Smaller majolica vases could be picked up by putting hands under the wide part of the vase. M&G’s 15½-inch tall and 13-inch diameter vases are considered large. Each vase weighs nearly 12 lbs. and holds about 4.5 gallons of liquid. A full vase would weigh nearly 50 lbs., which would require considerable strength and balance to lift and carry.

M&G’s Majolica Vases have a 5-inch diameter opening. Although the rounded lips would aid in pouring, the mouth is wide enough for a hand or a ladle to access the contents.

The decoration on M&G’s vases includes white, daisy-like flowers with a blue ring around the darker center.  These flowers with scrolling foliage (sometimes protruding through the flower) and swirling, plume-like shapes are common on Italian Renaissance containers. The blue background would have been painted after the design of the floral decoration. The short, irregular white curves were inscribed into the blue areas before it was fired. Because of the stability of the pigments and the clear glaze, the colors are still vibrant.

Prior to the 1800s few European ceramics have an identifying mark or a signature, and it is extremely rare for any Italian Renaissance piece to be signed or dated. Documented provenance would help determine age and origin or perhaps a design with a family crest or istoriato (having a portrait or a historical or biblical image). However, typical of most such pieces, M&G’s vases lack marks and embellishments, and their provenance extends to just under 100 years.

The opinions of museum curators and experts which specialize in the genre are the primary remaining source for information. M&G’s vases have been examined by experts, who believe the vases were made in Sicily during the late 16th or early 17th century.

Renaissance majolica is strong, but it can easily be broken. For a pair of large vases to have endured 400 years is remarkable, especially surviving their practical role and years spent in cellars and storerooms. Today museums proudly display glued-together objects of Italian Renaissance majolica, even if they are missing sections of the piece. M&G’s large and unbroken Majolica Vases are a treasure indeed.


William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer


Special thanks to students from the Honors Geometry classes of Bob Jones Academy for determining the vase volume and weight.



Published 2023

Object of the Month: November 2016

Bust of Henri II, King of France 

Bust of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France

Glazed Terracotta

Girolamo della Robbia (attr. to)

Italian, 1488–1566

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Heading into the month of November, the themes of family and tradition are strongly emphasized. Throughout the Museum & Gallery, there are many examples of studio traditions passed down between family members such as father to son, uncle to nephew and even father to daughter.  Of these there are few families who have achieved such renowned fame as the Della Robbia family.  Founded in Florence by Luca Della Robbia, the family workshop produced sculpture for more than 100 years and was considered one of the most successful studios of the Renaissance.

What made the Della Robbia family so successful was their contemporary approach to sculpture and their luminescent glazing.  Sculpture began to take new forms in the Renaissance, especially in the use of a forgotten medium—clay, which was revived for many reasons.  It was easy to model and cast, which allowed delicate detail; and it was an inexpensive material.  Clay was considered a humble medium that encouraged piety and did not distract from the holiness of the subject it depicted.

Luca is credited with the invention of the glaze, the family studio’s distinctive trademark, which effectively combined painting and sculpture.  Many reasons are given why he developed the new glazing technique ranging from aesthetic to economical or both.  The glaze was a ceramic treatment of the clay that protected the clay, making it impermeable.  It also rendered sculpture, in Giorgi Vasari’s words, “almost eternal.”  Hailed as a major artistic and scientific discovery, the glazed terracotta rapidly became desired throughout Florentine society.

After Luca, the studio was passed on to his nephew, Andrea, and then to Andrea’s sons.  From Florence, the studio was carried to France in 1517 by Girolamo della Robbia, the youngest son of Andrea.  At this time, King Francis I had been inviting many Italian artists such as Girolamo to encourage an artistic Renaissance in France.  Girolamo created many sculptures, altarpieces and intricate architectural elements for the king and his court.  After the death of King Francis, Girolamo went home to Florence but later followed Queen Catherine de’ Medici to Paris to continue making art until his death in 1566.  Two years later, Vasari wrote “not only did [Girolamo’s] house die out…but art was deprived of the knowledge of the proper method of glazing.”  Despite the family’s closely guarded glazing secrets, legend tells that a Della Robbia housemaid stole the glazing technique and passed it on to Benedetto Buglioni and his family.

Located in the Italian Mannerist gallery at M&G, two large terracotta busts immediately arrest the attention of guests.  Their powerful presence and beautiful glazing draw viewers in to inquire the identity of the sitters.  Both are attributed to Girolamo and are reminiscent of the works for which the della Robbia family is so famous.

When Dr. Bob Jones Jr., founder of M&G, purchased the pair, the figures were originally thought to be Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, son and daughter of infamous Pope Alexander VI.  However, due to Girolamo’s workshop being more centrally located in France, it is more likely the figures are King Henri II (son of Francis I) and Queen Catherine de’ Medici.  The figures could also be French courtiers who were wealthy enough to afford their portraits in sculpture.

Even though the art of sculpture seeks to capture a likeness or identifiable features, it should be noted that most sculptural portraits remain unidentified.  Whoever these two actually were, they have truly been immortalized and given as Vasari says an “almost eternal” look.  From their pedestal, they stand as a testament to the artistic tradition and genius of the Della Robbia family.

KC Christmas, Docent and Guest Services Attendant


Published in 2016