What are maiolica and majolica?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.