What are maiolica and majolica?

Maiolica plate painted by Francesco Xanto Avelli showing Pyramus and Thisbe Made in Urbino, Italy, 1534.

Maiolica and majolica are names used for different types of ceramics produced from the late-medieval period onwards. The names are sometimes used interchangeably which can lead to confusion.

Spanish exports

The history of these two names begins with the export of earthenware ceramics from Spain in the fourteenth century. These tin-glazed (lead with tin for opacity), lustred ceramics were highly prized across Europe, primarily for their clean white ground which provided a ‘canvas’ for the bright-coloured painted and gilded decoration.  

Etymology

The name maiolica was first used by Italians to describe these late-medieval and renaissance ceramics. It is thought the term derived from the early places of production in Malaga and the export route to Italy via the island of Mallorca.

When Italian potters began producing their own tin-glazed earthenwares they also called these ceramics maiolica.

Collectors’ items

In the nineteenth century, renaissance ceramics were highly collectable and increasingly rare. European ceramicists and factories began making contemporary versions to meet demand.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Minton of Stoke-on-Trent launched their relief-moulded, brightly-coloured, lead-glazed earthenwares, under the name ‘Palissy’ after the sixteenth-century French potter of the same name. A critical and commercial success, production soon spread to other pottery factories.  

Simultaneously, Minton and other factories produced lead-glazed versions of Italian renaissance maiolica which, by the nineteenth century, was also known in Britain by the anglicised name of majolica. The two styles developed over the century resulting in some of the boldest designs of the Victorian period, particularly suited to highly decorative interiors and for use as functional tablewares. 

Defining style

By the end of the nineteenth century both styles became intertwined under the one name majolica, also still used to describe renaissance ceramics. In the 1870s, to reduce confusion, curators at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) made a clear distinction between renaissance maiolica and nineteenth-century majolica.

By the late-nineteenth century majolica became the generally accepted term for the lead-glazed ceramics and Maiolica for all Italian tin-glazed earthenware.

Continuing debate

This distinction (majolica for nineteenth-century lead-glazed and maiolica for Italian tin-glazed) is still generally accepted in Britain. Internationally there is a wider debate as to whether all Italian tin-glazed earthenwares, including later production by factories such as Cantagalli and Ginori, classify as maiolica or whether production from the nineteenth century is in fact majolica (here the term is used to define ceramics of later production rather than a different technique).

Maiolica and majolica are perhaps ceramics names destined to continually evolve.

Maiolica and majolica in our care

Sixteenth century Italian maiolica duck, part of the large collection at Polesden Lacey

Italian maiolica in our collections 

From plates, bottles and ewers to inkwells, ducks and parrots, we look after beautiful Italian maiolica objects at a number of our properties.

Jardiniere and stand by Minton's Ltd. This model, No. 727, was introduced for the first time at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Minton majolica 

Explore our collection of nineteenth century majolica made by Minton Ltd., first launched at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

A striking pink sunset over the house at Polesden Lacey

Polesden Lacey 

Polesden Lacey was built in the 1820s by Thomas Cubitt; it was remodelled in 1902-6 by Sir Ambrose Poynter, then again for Mrs Ronald Greville, whose husband bought the house in 1906. Mrs Greville was a celebrated society hostess, and she amassed a world-class collection including Dutch Old Master paintings, fine silverware and Renaissance maiolica which remain on display in the house today.

Framed maiolica plates depicting religious and classical scenes, in The Library at Ickworth, Suffolk

Ickworth 

Ickworth’s Italian maiolica dishes were bought at auction in 1742 by John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, from Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer. At the five-day sale in Covent Garden, Lord Hervey bought ‘Four Roman earthen Plates, out of the Arundel Collection (1 broke)’ for £6 12s 6d. The term ‘Roman earthen ware’ was historically used to describe Italian maiolica.