Investigating what lies beneath a 16th Century Maiolica Dish from The Russell-Cotes Museum

By Elizabeth Wells, MA Conservation Studies student, specialising in Ceramics and Related Materials

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. 

Initial cleaning 

An early concern when deciding on the treatment for this object was the irreversibility of cleaning, and the ambiguity about what was beneath the surface dirt. It was not immediately obvious upon first observation whether the thick surface dirt covering the interior of the dish was actually paint added through treatment, hiding areas of loss to either the decoration or the ceramic body. If that was to be removed, there was no going back.   

Luckily, after testing a very small, discreet area on the back of the dish to establish if cleaning was a safe route, I was relieved to find the dusty layer removed quickly with deionised water on a swab, revealing a brilliant, shiny original surface beneath, and not, as I feared, loss to the decoration. Figure 3 shows an area on the front of the dish cleaned with deionised water, and the vivid colours showing through.  

Figure 3: A small area cleaned with deionised water on a swab, showing the extent of the surface dirt

After communicating this good news to the team at the Russell-Cotes, I continued on in the hope of revealing original Maiolica decoration across the whole dish. To my joy, there was only one substantial area of loss, a 2cm wide triangle to the left of the scene, with a substantial amount of the decoration still in incredible condition (figure 4 shows the item come to life through cleaning and the area of loss to the main body). The front and back were then cleaned thoroughly with swabs of deionised water, seen in this video

Figure 4: The object after surface cleaning and initial taping to get a feel for the final look

Questions about the rim 

Both the charm and the challenge of this ceramic is understanding and appreciating the previous conservation work that has been done.  

Communicating with experts and investigating private and public collections led me to believe that the dish may have once been a deep bowl on a raised foot stand, or a substantial, rounded vase. Figure 5 shows sketched examples of the shape the item might have once been, the large sketch in the centre is the current shape of the dish.  

Figure 5: Sketches suggesting the original shape of the object

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.  

The future of this dish is looking bright. The arch decoration removed easily with acetone on cotton swabs without damaging the fill or the yellow tone. The previous bonds loosened almost immediately through the introduction of small amounts of acetone, and the rivets were a weak solder material and so fell out easily. The break edges are still heavily stained and are currently undergoing processes of solvent and water cleaning, avoiding over-saturation of the raw ceramic.  

Once all these stages are complete, the dish will be bonded together using an edge-to-edge technique with Paraloid B-72 in a percentage acetone solution, and a fill for the central area of loss will be made using a plaster core with an epoxy resin glaze layer and retouched with Goldens acrylics. The rim will be filled and retouched in areas of loss to be harmonious with other types of Maiolica, in the hope the central scene will once again be the showstopper and will continue to show the brilliance of Maiolica.  

Stay tuned for an update on how the retouching treatment goes! 

Figure 8: Working on the Maiolica on my bench at West Dean College


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 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: (Accessed: 28 December 2022). 

V&A Museum (2008) Plate: Unknown: V&A explore the collections, Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections. Available at:  (Accessed: 28 December 2022). 

Wilson, T. (1987). Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance, British Museum Press, London