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

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

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

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