ITALIAN PORCELAIN - NOT JUST PASTA BOWLS AND FESTIVALE MASKS…

ITALIAN PORCELAIN - NOT JUST PASTA BOWLS AND FESTIVALE MASKS…

A somewhat overlooked sphere of endeavour, Italian porcelain has given rise to pieces every bit as wonderful as those from any other source in Europe, and the politicking that underwrote the trade there also rivals machinations across the continent...


It cannot have escaped your attention that the centres of porcelain manufacture which we have looked at so far were all to be found in areas with an affluent marketplace to hand, in to which the high-quality wares could be sold. The French Royal court and nobility, their Prussian and German counterparts and – of course – the aspirational English middle classes of the 18th century were all voracious consumers of fine ceramics and sustained their local production facilities and supply chains.


The desire to surround oneself with the finer things in life was not restricted to these three or four centres of acquisitive pretension though, and there were several other locations across Europe where citizens of a seemly disposition were eager to present themselves as a potential customer base to anyone who cared to offer them desirable products.


Venice has always been regarded as one of the foremost sources for high-end glassware, and it will come as no surprise to anyone that the lagoon also saw its fair share of porcelain manufacturing ventures, pandering to the desires of the city’s historically flamboyant citizenry. It was, however, somewhat restricted in such practices by the fact that, although it had ready local sources for top grade glass making raw materials, there was no such surfeit of china clay in the area. Indeed, the earliest producers had to also contend with a ban on the export of kaolin from the nearest (known) sources in Germany, and it had to be smuggled in to the city – an exercise which naturally saw the price become artificially inflated. The very first exponent of the art was one Claude Du Paquier, in 1719, but his venture seems to have been singularly short lived (he was to go on to greater things in Austria) and it is Francesco and Giovanni Vezzi, who were the first to enjoy any sort of success with porcelain manufacture in the area. Francesco was a confederate of one Christoph Hunger – the pair having met in Vienna and spent not inconsiderable time cogitating about the whys and wherefores of porcelain making. The German was able to divulge the secrets of the trade which he had learned whilst working under Bottger at Meissen to the one-time goldsmith as he sought to set up his son in business. The out-turn of the Vezzi factory – in operation from around 1720 – was, to be fair quite mundane; teapots, saucers, beakers, canisters, occasional figurines and one or two more ornate pieces such as lantern-holders with pierced apertures, but the costs inherent in the production of their hard-paste pieces proved to be unsustainable, and operations ceased after just seven years.


The next notable manufactory in Italy (albeit in its pre-unification guise of loosely-aggregated city states and protectorates) sprang up away from the lagoon at Doccia, near Florence. This was eight years after the closure of Vezzi’s business, and was overseen by the inestimable Carlo Ginori, Marchese di Sesto Fiorentino. Ginori was following in the footsteps of wealthy Fiorentine family the Medicis, who had made a much earlier attempt to manufacture their own oriental style porcelain, but failed dismally with their efforts stalling entirely in 1587. It was Medici investment, however, which enabled Ginori to second two leading lights from Austria’s inner circle of porcelain cognoscenti, Karl Wendelin and Georgi delle Torri (a former colleague of du Paquier). Ginori’s efforts quickly bore fruit, and his patrons were to become avid collectors of his work. Other significant supporters were Tuscany’s ruling Lorena dynasty (a typically convoluted 18th century hybrid of Holy Roman Emperors and Hapsburg nobility that seemed to claim sovereignty over most of central Europe and have inexhaustible wealth to fritter away on any fripperies that took their fancy). With this sort of backing, Ginori could hardly fail, and – having steadily moved away from his initial pattern book which had largely been filled with orientally-inspired pieces – he began to replicate the famed bronze statuary produced by Florence’s renowned sculptors, assisted by his master modeller Gaspero Bruschi. Doccia also pioneered the use of underglaze-blue stencilling, and exhibited an unsurprising Austrian influence by way of the appearance of Turkish patterns and scenes which had become familiar to Wendelin and his compatriots after years of warfare against invading Ottomans which had raged back and forth across the Balkans. By the time Ginori’s sons took over the running of the company after his death in 1757, Doccia was producing figurines and dioramas on an epic scale, such as the reproduction of a Soldani-Benzi piece that was over three feet long and made up of eighteen separate elements. However, Doccia’s work was always underscored by the production of Imari-style pieces in deference to the Far Eastern scope of Carlo’s original work.


In 1743, some eight years after Ginori had begun work at Doccia, a rather better-known manufactory was to come in to being – the Capodimonte works near Naples. This was funded by the royal couple Charles and Maria Amalia, King and Queen of Naples and Sicily, who looked to surround themselves with facsimiles of Meissen from the early years of their reign. Having unsuccessfully tried to lure some of Doccia’s workers south in to the shadow of Vesuvius, numerous arcanists were procured from some of the finest manufactories across Europe – Grizzi, the Schepers brothers and Caselli – all of whom contributed to the development of the Capodimonte “sotto il vetro” deep-glaze style, ideally suited for the production of moulded figurines and miniature floral pieces painted in exquisite detail which were used as applique decorations on vases and other vessels. Eventually, Charles would become King of Spain, and – on claiming his throne in Madrid – he relocated the entire Capodimonte works to his palace at Buen Retiro in the city’s suburbs. The original Neapolitan factory was destroyed and, fifteen years later when Charles’ son and heir, Ferdinand IV, looked to resurrect the industry, he built completely new premises at Portici and in the grounds of his own royal residence, but the out-turn never rivalled the quality or artistic flair of pieces produced by the earlier incarnation.


At around the same time that Doccia passed in to the stewardship of Ginori’s sons , there was another wave of Venetian ceramic fervour as first Friederich Hewelcke and then Geminiano Cozzi established production facilities under the baleful gaze of the Doge. Hewelcke found himself on the shores of the lagoon as a refugee, having fled Meissen during a closure precipitated by the Seven Years War, and he was to return to Germany in 1763 when peace broke out. Cozzi’s venture was somewhat longer lasting, mainly because he was able to exploit a deposit of kaolin from Tretto, near Vicenza, some fifty miles to the east and – as a result – earned himself favourable dispensations from La Serenissima (a pretentious name for the Republic of Venice – do excuse me !) which enabled him to run his business at a profit, avoiding the punitive costs of material smuggling which had proved so detrimental to earlier projects. Another former Meissen employee, Sigmund Fischer was to then go in to business – a little later, in 1762 – alongside Pasquale Antonibon, specialising in the production figurines based on classic Venetian commedia dell’arte characters. Operating from the small town of Nove – closer to Vicenza than Venice, and again taking advantage of the Tretto resource - this manufactory persisted until well in to the 19th century (albeit with extended breaks in production), turning out rococo-style pieces decorated with scenes from sea-ports, historical allegories – and some really rather fetching pastoral compositions which featured cartoon-like figures, bordering on the grotesque, who can be seen – for example - hefting enormous fruits around and displaying exaggerated gestures or facial expressions.


This somewhat peculiar Nove style provided a useful bookend for the Italian porcelain design portfolio, which now ranged from the albeit rather commonplace classicism of oriental pieces, through the infinitely skilful production of miniatures to extravagantly-sized figurines and sculptures, by way of entirely new decorative techniques and the assimilation of influences from distant empires, to the use of gurning children, heavy-headed dwarves and overtly demonstrative “arlecchini e giunchi”. It’s a diverse collection of designs, which gives Italian porcelain a broad appeal, although it does seem to be underrated in comparison to French, British and German wares – I suggest that you do your bit to redress this imbalance and immediately collect it avidly !


for more articles about European glass and porcelain, check the following links:


European Art Glass (part one)

European Art Glass (part two)

German Porcelain

French Porcelain

Maltese (Mdina) Glass

Meissen Porcelain


here's a link to our current stock list of Continental porcelain


The image with this article shows (by row) Vezzi, Doccia, Capodimonte, Cozzi & Hewelcke and Hewelcke & Nove pieces







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