In September 2022 I was both excited and slightly nervous to have the opportunity to work on an incredible maiolica dish from The Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth. Despite its somewhat dull appearance sat on my bench, it was clear there was something magical underneath all the overpaint, surface dirt and fills, and the oddly incongruous, thick, cold-painted rim indicated it had a story to tell. I was immediately hooked.
Maiolica and its significance
Maiolica refers to a style of tin-glaze earthenware originating from the Italian Renaissance. Easy to spot in a museum, Maiolica is often decorated with scenes from Roman and Greek mythology with a distinctive butter-yellow rim, an intricate polychrome decoration would be created over a white tin-glaze on an earthenware ceramic before the second firing stage¹. Once collected by the Russell-Cotes family during their travels, this Maiolica dish shows Venus on a sea chariot, framed by Tritones and Nereids, with Cupid and another putto flying above (figure 1). The underside is decorated in a simpler style of blues and browns imitating rocks and foliage (figure 2).
Speaking to Maiolica experts across private workshops and public institutions, it was suggested that this dish may be indicative of styles found in Urbino from the middle of the 16th century and it seems to have similarities with a Fontana Workshop bowl and an Urbino plate showing a similar scene, both currently at the V&A (V&A: 2006, 2008)².
Suspicions about its past
However, this dish is a bit more complicated than it may at first seem. Traditionally, the majority of Maiolica plates have thin, yellow, curved rims³, however the Russell-Cotes dish had a thick, flat rim with a painted arch decoration. This piqued my interest. Further investigation revealed glaze loss on the underside close to the rim, an abrupt end to the decoration on the back, and cut marks on the base, all leading to the possibility that perhaps this ‘dish’ had not always been a dish. To add to the complexity, the object was also broken into 36 separate sherds with most sections previously bonded in place and a few broken away, as well as rivets and rivet holes for good measure.
The altering of this dish from its original shape has left it with a harsh, thick cut line on the rim that has been filled and painted at some stage. The restoration is incredibly detailed, and the fill is level, however it is incongruous with original Maiolica rims, and the decoration is both invented and distracting from the central scene. A huge aspect of the conservation treatment is to decide how to treat this rim in a way that respects the item’s inherent aesthetic and historic values alongside the story of its restoration.
It was very quickly apparent through cleaning with swabs of deionised water followed by acetone that the rim was a fill that had been retouched to a buttery yellow with accents of brown arches. Like the interior of the dish, the surface dirt came away easily revealing the bright yellow colour (figure 6 and 7 show the before and after). It was at this point decisions had to be made about next steps, and after speaking to the Curator at the Russell-Cotes, we decided to commit to removing the retouched arch detail but keeping the fill and the yellow colour of the previous repair.
There were pros and cons to a number of options, including leaving it as is, or removing the rim fill entirely. Removing the fill would be risky to the fragile, porous ceramic body; it would be incredibly time-consuming; and the heavy solvents that might be needed could damage the original surface, however the end result may be more sympathetic to other items at the time. On the other hand, leaving the rim respects the previous repair and the item’s history, shows the dish has been altered from its original form and keeps the solid, flat fill that has already been added, however the arches may be distracting from the rest of the item. A compromise of retaining the previous fill but removing the arch decoration is arguably the best of both worlds. It is time effective, the yellow is harmonious with other Maiolica pieces but isn’t distracting to the interior, and it doesn’t distract or deceive the viewer.
Hess, C. (2004). The Arts of Fire: Islamic Influences on Glass and Ceramics of the Italian Renaissance. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum
McNab, J. (2002), Maiolica in the Renaissance. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Met Museum [Online] Available at https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maio/hd_maio.htm Accessed: 28 December 2022
Thornton, S, L, D. (2001). Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy. London, British Museum
V&A Museum (2006) Bowl: Fontana workshop: V&A explore the collections, Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Available at: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O130429/bowl-fontana-workshop/ (Accessed: 28 December 2022).
V&A Museum (2008) Plate: Unknown: V&A explore the collections, Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Available at: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O159690/plate-unknown/ (Accessed: 28 December 2022).
Wilson, T. (1987). Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance, British Museum Press, London