Reeves Center Acquires 16th-Century Italian Vase The vase, which was made in the city of Deruta, illustrates two main influences on European ceramic design.
From the Renaissance until today, there have been two main influences on European ceramic design: design inspired by ancient Greece and Rome, and design inspired by Asia. This vase, made in Italy between 1510 and 1540 and newly acquired for the Reeves Collection, shows both.
It combines medallions containing bust portraits of ancient Romans, a style known in 16th-century Italy as all’ antica, or “after the antique,” with a pattern of scrolling blue vines on a white ground, which was inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain and was known at the time as alla porcellana, or “after porcelain.”
The vase is made of Italian maiolica, a brightly colored tin-glazed earthenware made in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Inspired by tin-glazed earthenware vessels made in the Middle East and Islamic Spain, maiolica was named for the Mediterranean island of Majorca, through which Spanish tin-glazed earthenware was exported to Italy.
Italian maiolica was one of the earliest “prestige” ceramics to be made in Europe, prized not just for its functionality but also for its design, craftsmanship and ability to convey social status. Maiolica even came to rival silver and gold as the tableware of choice for the elite; in a thank-you letter, Lorenzo de Medici of Florence wrote that he valued a gift of maiolica “as if they are silver, because of their excellence and rarity.”
Maiolica was bought by wealthy and sophisticated consumers throughout Italy, ranging from merchants to princes and popes, and was exported as far afield as Germany and England. It was meant to be used, either for dining (the most common form found in maiolica are plates) or for display. Our vase would have originally had a cover, and was probably used to decorate a sideboard during a grand banquet.
While not nearly as famous as painting, sculpture or architecture, Italian maiolica is, according to the art historian Timothy Wilson, “at its most ambitious … a serious form of Italian Renaissance art.” As the leading scholar of the subject, he may be biased, but Italian maiolica reflects many of the main traits of the Italian Renaissance: the revival of interest in the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, new global trade networks that moved objects and design motifs around the world, and a growing sophisticated, urban elite with the wealth and interest to commission luxury objects for both religious and secular use.
Our vase was made in the city of Deruta, near Perugia in Umbria. Deruta was famed for its maiolica, and had between 30 and 40 workshops active in the first half of the 16th century. The vase is attributed to one of Deruta’s leading potters, Nicola Francioli (who was also known as “Co” and was active from at least 1513 to 1565), based on similarities between it and a tiled pavement in the church of San Francesco in Deruta that he made in 1524.
Francioli would have drawn on a number of different sources for his designs. The bust portraits were probably inspired by ancient Roman coins and cameos, which were avidly collected by Renaissance connoisseurs. Such imagery would have been readily available, either through the coins or cameos themselves, printed images in books, or drawings or paintings by artists. Among these was the painter Pinturicchio, from the nearby city of Perugia, several of whose paintings were copied on maiolica, and whose portrait medallions on the ceiling of the Palazzo della Rovere in Rome resemble those on this vase.
The alla porcellana decoration was inspired by 15th-century Chinese blue and white porcelain. Chinese porcelain was fabulously rare in Europe at the time, owned only by the wealthiest and most well-connected people. It was prized for its white translucent body, its delicately painted decoration and its exotic origins, and potters strove to imitate its material and decoration. While it would take until 1708 for Europeans to figure out how to make the material itself, they quickly learned how to imitate its blue and white decoration; by the 1550s it was noted that alla porcellana was a “universal design” on maiolica.
As an example of one of the earliest types of fine ceramic to have been made in Europe, and as an example of the earliest influence of Chinese porcelain on European ceramics, this vase is a perfect addition to the Reeves Collection, which is especially rich in Chinese export porcelain and European ceramics that were inspired by Chinese porcelain. The vase was bought with money from the W. Groke Mickey Acquisitions Fund, and is now on display in the Reeves Center.
Antique Plate Linked to Special Date On the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, we take a closer look at a special item in the Reeves Collection — a plate that bears the image of Martin Luther.
Almost exactly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, a little-known monk named Martin Luther, in the little-known town of Wittenburg, Germany, nailed a list of 95 theses against the Catholic practice of indulgences to the university church door. This small event led to the Protestant Reformation, one of the seminal moments in Western Civilization.
Large numbers of people split away from the Catholic Church and created new denominations. One of these was the Lutheran Church, which followed the teachings of Martin Luther. In addition to sparking the Reformation and founding the Lutheran Church, Luther also made an important and influential translation of the Bible.
The Lutheran Church spread throughout Europe, and by the 18th century there was a small Lutheran population in the Netherlands, one of the most tolerant and religiously diverse countries in Europe. In the mid-18th century, devout Dutch Lutherans commissioned Chinese export porcelain decorated with their church founder’s portrait paired with a scene of Christ teaching his apostles. The Reeves Collection at W&L includes a plate with this image.
Like most European designs found on Chinese export porcelain, the image was based on a print — in this case, the title page of a Dutch Lutheran Bible. Engraved by Charles Brun (active 1627-1648), it first appeared in an edition of the Bible published in Amsterdam by Adolf Visscher in 1648.
The Bible, and its illustrations, went through multiple editions over the next few decades. Among these was the Nederduytse Bijbel, which was printed at the Lutheran Orphanage in Amsterdam in 1750 (Nederduytse, more commonly spelled Nederduits, or Low German, is a dialect of German spoken in Northern Germany and the Netherlands).
But the title page was not the only image copied from the Nederduytse Bijbel onto Chinese porcelain. Illustrations from the Bible of four scenes from the life of Christ — the nativity, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, all based on engravings by the Dutch artist Jan Luyken — were also used to decorate plates and tea wares.
The Nederduytse Bijbel was an octavo, a relatively small and affordable book about the size of a modern-day paperback. It is easy to imagine that a merchant, looking for designs to have copied onto Chinese porcelain, would have thought that religious scenes would have market appeal, and would have sent a copy to China, where it was used as a model by Chinese porcelain painters in the port of Guangzhou (which was known to Europeans as Canton).
A number of plates with Luther’s portrait are known, suggesting that a number were made. Most do not show much wear, suggesting that they were not used much, if at all. They, like the plates with the nativity, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, were probably made more for display than use, as a way of demonstrating one’s piety and religious identity.
Related: Four Martin Luther tracts housed in W&L’s Special Collections were fully restored in time for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Read more here.
Quirky Ceramics Tell Fascinating Tales A new exhibit, “Mementos of the Great War: Toby Jugs Commemorating Allied Leaders of World War I,” is open to the public in the Watson Pavilion at Washington and Lee University through December 2017.
In 1918, to celebrate the United States’ entrance into World War I a year earlier, the A. J. Wilkinson Pottery issued a Toby jug modeled after Woodrow Wilson. Dressed as Uncle Sam, Wilson sits on a biplane, “giving,” as one British advertisement suggested, “the idea that he is sending it over to the Front to join us in our One Great Cause.” To ensure that the sentiments represented by the jug are clear, “Welcome Uncle Sam!” is emblazoned around the base.
The jug joined 11 others that had been produced by Wilkinson to commemorate allied English and French military and civilian leaders of World War I. The jugs were designed by Francis Carruthers Gould, a popular political cartoonist of the time, and were retailed by Soane & Smith Ltd., a high-end ceramics and glass dealer in London.
The first jug, depicting Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, appeared in January 1915. Others were put into production as new figures gained prominence. A twelfth jug depicting Winston Churchill as the First Lord of the Admiralty (a position he held from 1911 to 1915) was not produced until 1941. The reason for the delay of more than two decades is thought to have been Churchill’s connection to the disastrous defeat at Gallipoli. The design was revived and put into production after Churchill became Prime Minister.
The jugs were issued in limited editions of from 250 to 1,000 (Kitchener got only 250 while King George V got 1,000), and were advertised as an investment; Soane & Smith somewhat self-servingly asked “we quite realize that economy is the order of the day, but what is a good investment but economy in its finest form? Why not, therefore, procure your set before the prices increase still further?” The jugs were also donated to charitable auctions and raffles raising money for the war effort; one jug depicting Admiral Jellicoe made £296.
The full set of jugs, on loan from W&L alumnus Bruce C. Perkins, is featured in the exhibit “Mementos of the Great War: Toby Jugs Commemorating the Allied Leaders of World War I.” Perkins loaned the jugs to W&L to help mark the 100th anniversary of the U.S.’s entrance into WWI. The exhibit will be on display in the Watson Pavilion through December 2017.
For more information about the exhibit, click here.
Meet W&L’s Oldest Ceramic In the first installment of our new series, Ron Fuchs tells the story behind a 4,000-year-old jar in Watson Pavilion.
Welcome to “From the Collections,” a brand new series in The Columns that will highlight the many fascinating objects in University Collections of Art and History. Through the ages, Washington and Lee University has been a trusted steward of art and history; today, it is home to thousands of important works and historic objects that are housed under the umbrellas of The Reeves Collection, Lee Chapel and Museum, and the Art Collection.
Some of these items are on display for the campus community and visitors to see, while others are currently housed in storage. In addition, the university frequently acquires new objects for the collections. In monthly installments written by UCAH staff, “From the Collections” will tell the stories of some of these items, from the oldest objects in the collections to the most exciting new acquisitions.
Stay tuned for another new series, “Out of the Vault,” that will focus on the Special Collections Department of Leyburn Library and will debut within the next few weeks.
This large jar, which is on display just inside the front door of the Watson Pavilion, is the oldest ceramic in the Reeves Collection, and is one of the oldest human-made objects at Washington and Lee University.
It was made in northwestern China more than 4,000 years ago by people of the Majiayao Culture. These people did not have potter’s wheels (which were developed in southern China about 3000 BCE), so this piece was made by stacking long coils of clay one on top of another, and then joining them together with a paddle to make a smooth, thin-walled vessel.
The jar was probably made to store food for the afterlife, and would have been buried with its owner. Since the people who made this jar left behind no written record, we have no real idea about whether the jar’s decoration had religious or cultural significance, or if it was done to satisfy what seems to be an innate human desire for decoration and pattern. Some scholars have seen in its swirling lines evidence of an interest in brushwork that would later manifest itself in calligraphy, one of China’s highest art forms.
The jar was bought by a group of donors to honor Elizabeth Watson, who gave the funds that built the Watson Pavilion. However, the acquisition of jars like this is not without controversy; they are found below ground, usually in graves. Disturbed during construction or outright looted, they are robbed of their context and often smuggled out of China. When the Reeves bought this jar in the 1990s, museums were not aware of — or were not concerned about — such issues. Today we are, and we would not acquire something without a known provenance (museum-speak for an object’s place of discovery and history).
Ancient jars like these are also players in the contemporary art world. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has painted similar jars with the Coca-Cola logo and dipped others in brightly colored paint to symbolize the destruction of traditional Chinese culture by government oppression and globalization.
Made by: Majiayao Culture
Where: Northwestern China
When: 2300-2000 BCE
Acquisition: Museum purchase with funds provided by Mrs. Lea Booth, Mr. and Mrs. Arlen Cotter, Mrs. Floyd Gottwald, Mrs. Shirley Hui, and Mr. and Mrs. James W. Whitehead