“Paintings on Pottery in Italy” by Dinah Reynolds

We were delighted to welcome Dinah Reynolds to our group in Haywards Heath in May and enjoy the most vibrant and entertaining presentation.  Dinah is an accomplished lecturer and writer and an authority on British ceramics. She has worked for several years on the Ashmolean Museum Collection. Dinah’s lecture was entitled “Paintings on Pottery in Italy”.

There is some confusion surrounding Majolica which is the name that has been adopted for all objects that were traditionally ceramic, such as dishes, bowls, serving vessels, and jugs of all shapes and sizes that were decorated with coloured lead glazes.  While Maiolica is technically the refined, tin-glazed pottery with opaque white glaze which became popular during the Italian Renaissance. The process was also used as a medium for sculpture and sculptural relief.  Dinah showed many slides of Majolica Italian Renaissance painted pottery most of which can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum. It was explained that the paintings were not related to the actual use of the pottery as the shape determined the style of painting.


The first example shown was of a 14t h century pharmacy jar or albarello from Tuscany. A type of majolica earthenware jar decorated with a woman falconer and a centaur.  These jars originally were designed to hold apothecary’s ointments and dry drugs. The development of this type of pharmacy jar had its roots in the Middle East during the time of the Islamic conquests and during the Renaissance there began a rebirth and looking back for inspiration. The tin glazing process had emanated from near Cairo but had spread up through Sicily and Southern Spain.

Another extraordinary piece shown was decorated with a painting of Diana and Acteon and dates from 1495. The inscription translates as: By the water which thou hast cast upon me with thy hands I am made a stag and killed by my hounds. This magnificent dish is one of the world’s earliest and most remarkable majolica dishes depicting a story. In the centre the hunter, Acteon, is killed by his own hounds after being turned into a stag by the goddess Diana. Around the rim is the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. The myth of Diana and Acteon has been a popular theme for many paintings but interestingly during the Renaissance nudity could only be depicted when part of a religious story.

Dinah went on to show us many more fine 15th and 16th century examples including Hercules and Hydra by Guido Durantina, The Callumny of Apelles by Urbino. Retreat of Xerxes 1537 based on a woodcut by Girolamo ~Grandi 1533. St Luke by Guido di <Merlino 1543 . (St Luke is always depicted as a bull.) The Campaigns of Julius Caesar by Urbano 1561-1575 which on this particular piece has three pairs of moulded swans on the bottom. Departure of Pessaro which is the latest acquisition by the Ashmoleum and appears to be based on woodcut from the Italian version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1497. Dinah explained that artists were dependent upon these engravers and each painting had to tell a story as most people could not read.

Guiding us to the 18th century Dinah showed some of the work of the great painter of Siena, Maria Campoli.  The 1730 Adoration of Shepherds, Neptune in his Chariot of 1749 and finally “Truth Invented by Time” which it was explained is the Coat of Arms for the 1st Marquess of Rockingham and was acquired by the museum in 2007.

The Ashmoleun continues to collect both Majolica and Maiolica!