The difference between Pottery, Ceramics and Majolica, with special regard to Italian Ceramics

Italian decorative bowl by ND Dolfi (Montelupo)I’ve been dealing with Italian Ceramics for quite a long time: I collect them, I read about them , I sell them.

As an Italian, when I have to write in English or talk with one of my American Customers, I’m always uncertain: should I say Italian Pottery, Italian Ceramics or Italian Majolica?

In order to do away with any doubt, I did some research and ran some tests. I learned quite a lot on the subject and I would love to share my findings with you.

Let’s start with technicalities. Here is a short review of the definition of the words Ceramics, Pottery and Majolica. Once we know exactly what we are talking about, we will define what they really mean to people.

Ceramics

Ceramic is the most general term. It is derived from the Greek word keramos, meaning “clay”.
Historically, ceramics were prepared by shaping clay, decorating it, often glazing it and firing it at high temperatures in a kiln. However, this definition has changed. The term ceramics now refers to a diverse group of materials, including cements and glass. While all are fired at high temperatures, clay is no longer a key component of ceramics.
That is why, nowadays, the category ceramics technically includes both pottery and porcelain, which, with their standard formulas, have come to popularly represent quality grades.

Pottery

Pottery is an ornamental or useful ware shaped from moist clay and hardened by heat. The type of clay used and the temperature at which it is fired give pottery a different appearance and strength.

There are three major pottery types.

    • Earthenware
      It is also know as bisque or biscuit and it is fired at low temperatures – 1800° to 2100° Fahrenheit. It is usually reddish or white. Due to its high porosity, earthenware must usually be glazed to enable it to hold water.
      Earthenware pieces have been found that date back to1400-1200 BC, making this craft the oldest pottery in history.
    • Stoneware
      It is made of a heavier clay mixture, which can be fired at much higher temperatures – 2200° to 2400° Fahrenheit. It is dense, impermeable and hard enough to resist scratching by a steel point. It’s brownish gray and it can be used both blazed and unglazed. Ideal for cooking and baking.
    • Porcelain
      It’s made of a specific clay, containing kaolinite, and it is fired at high temperatures – 2200° to 2500° Fahrenheit. It is hard, impermeable (even before glazing), white, translucent and resonant.

Majolica

Majolica – also spelled Maiolica – is the beautiful ware prepared by tin-glazing earthenware and firing it a second time.
After the first firing, the bisque is dipped into a bath of fast drying liquid glaze. When dry, the glazed piece is ready to be hand painted. A final firing at 1690° Fahrenheit will make the glaze interact with the metal oxides used by the painter to create the deep and brilliant translucent colors specific to majolica.

This technique originates in the Middle East in the 9th century. By the 13th century majolica ware was imported into Italy through the Isle of Majorca, headquarter of the trade between Spain and Italy. The Italians called it Maiolica, erroneously thinking it was made in Majorca. They were fascinated by this new way of making ceramics and soon started to copy the process, adapting it by their own creativity and traditions. The rise of Italian majolica in Europe was fast and reached its peak of artistic quality throughout central Italy during the Renaissance – late15th and early 16th centuries.

Nowadays, in English the word Majolica is used to refer to ceramic ware in the stylistic tradition of the Italian Renaissance.

A huge step ahead.
Now I know that I collect and sell Pottery, specifically Earthenware, mostly Italian majolica.

The original question is still unanswered, though. I still do not know what I should call my beloved ware when talking to my American friends.

Having rejected the use of Earthenware, because the word is by far too technical, I tested using the term Italian majolica. Only museum staff or experts understood what I meant, and many of them figured I was taking about istoriato Renaissance ware, while I had in mind modern Italian majolica pieces.

As the next step I tested the phrase Italian pottery. The result was good, everybody knew I was talking about clay ware in the shape of an Italian bowl, an Italian vase or an Italian dinnerware set. I was not satisfied, though. Pottery is any kind of ware shaped from moist clay and hardened by heat. Pottery can be used for a $20 chicken cooking pot as well as a $2000 Italian istoriato wall plate.

How could I convey both the technical process behind Italian pottery as well as its unique quality and beauty?

I tested the term Italian ceramics and it worked perfectly. Digging into my Customers’ and friends answers I found out that it actually conveyed high quality and included both dinnerware and ornamental ware.

There is an historical explanation for this.

Although “Ceramics” is – nowadays and in purely technical language – a more general term than pottery, it has been used for more than 3000 years in the countries where this craft is born and it has evolved into an art.

Italy is one of those countries: we proudly handcrafted some of the finest ceramics in the history of this art. Italian ceramics include the Etruscan “bucchero”, the Renaissance majolica and lusterware, the Baroque tiles from Sicily, the “zaffera” from central Italy, the contemporary clay art…

When we say Italian ceramics, we mean much more than items made of clay, earthenware or majolica. These two words embody artistic heritage, history, regional traditions, the creativity of a people. They touch a chord in our souls. That’s probably why so many people are passionate about Italian ceramics.
Like you and I.

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20 thoughts on “The difference between Pottery, Ceramics and Majolica, with special regard to Italian Ceramics

  1. Bravo! This article is a brave attempt to clarify a rather complex subject and it did so beautifully. It is a wonderful introduction into the world of clay and glazes. But it was Tiziana’s last paragraph that contains the real value. Those words were written, as only a true collector of Italian ceramics could have crafted them-with passion. Hopefully, in time, others will join in the joy that comes from owning examples of magnificent handcrafted Italian pottery that are created by artisans who respect the traditions of the past while being able to incorporate the very best of the contemporary and the modern.
    Walter

  2. I am looking for information on cantagali..Italian pieces marked with a rooster…especially those in the Della Robbia Style. I am a small time collector but I am passionate about these beautiful blue and white pieces that so often depict religious themes. I particularly love the ones with the colorful fruit borders. I want to know how to determine the age to be sure I am not getting fakes..I look for old pieces. I have 2 very nive, very large pieces as well as a lot of smaller ones. I am currentky trying to buy a piece on e-bay but I think she is asking way too much..I would have a better idea if I know more about the marks on the back..a rooster and impressed cantagali, firenze {Italy} is what it says… . You seem so knowledgeable..I hope you can help me become more savy!
    Anne Clayton

  3. Hi, I enjoyed reading your page. I have a piece of pottery -not sure which definition it falls under- it’s a vase above 14″ tall, it was my grandparents, I think it’s from the 50′s. It has a signature on the bottom that I can’t make out and was wondering if you recognize it. It looks like M with A in the middle (or A with M in the middle) under that it is ITALY the signature is pretty large about 1 1/2″ x 1 1/2″. Does this sound familiar – I can send a picture if that would help. Can you refer me to someone else who might recognize this signature? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  4. Thanks for a very informative article. Most of my finds have been American stoneware, pottery. I have recently begun work on an estate that has many Quimper, faience and Italian pieces. Most of my research on the Italian pieces leads me to new retail items. One piece in particular has a redware inside color, a blue wash on the outside, and a shiny Majolica like scene of a partridge in a pear tree and a pear on the other side. It is numbered, signed and marked Italy, along with a hallmark that has a moonshaped C with an R or P on its lower tail. It’s not as ornate as most Italian pieces…very simple and elegant look. Any ideas? Thanks again.

  5. i have an italian ceramic vase wrapped around the bottom rounded part of vase with leather. on the bottom is italy with a rooster mark. please help no idea who and where in italy makes this type of ceramic ware. i have researched but came up with no info. thank-you

  6. I was very interested in your article, because for my ceramics class i had to find a piece from Italy that I really like and try to make one myself, I finally chose one but I’m not quite sure what kind it is.. the color is a dark red and has grapes on it and they have either a bowl or a large urn or a platter.. If you have any idea what kind of pottery this might be it would be of great help!

  7. Hi , I have a handpainted vase with 3 dimentional flowers on each side of it one blue and one yellow.the only marking is the word italy handpainted in black on the bottom, I have been looking for hours now for any artical on handpainted markings of just the word italy and found absolutly nothing, if you could help that would be great or if you could write an artical on italian markings and dates even better.

  8. I have a set of three urn type canisters that are signed and numbered with the following. 66/H.F Made in Italy Can anyone tell me anything about these ceramic pieces?

  9. Bravo sir, I am an historical archaeologist and deal with these terms on a very regular basis, but still get intensely confused in the technical language. In fact, that’s how I found your site.
    I did want to make a comment in regards to your last paragraph. I had the pleasure of visiting the pottery museum in Deruta while working in Umbria and they house a vast collection of Italian ceramics going back to the Etruscan period. It is all exquisite, refined, and remarks of a culture that prizes its artistic endevours at the highest level.

  10. i have bought a pair of candlesticks, they look like a dragon type fish, the mouth being the holder of the candle, the dragon or fish type body and tail turns back towards the head to make the holder () for the finger to fit into, this sits ontop a seashell, the halmark is that of a rooster, one blue, one brown, any information on this type candlestick would be helpfull reply to, jreuss@webtv.net.. i thank you! colors are bright, blues, greens, yellows

  11. Firstly, I need to introduce myself. I have worked as a technician in the ceramic industry of Stoke on Trent and at a university ceramics department for 33 years. I also hold a Masters degree in History of Art and Design (specializing in Renaissance studies).
    The term ‘ceramic’ refers to the material itself, when silica particles in a clay body have fused as a result of being heated. This fusing begins at around 575 degrees centigrade and is irreversible. As previously stated, the term ‘pottery’ refers to an intended domestic function of (ceramic)ware.
    I would also like to draw attention to another source of confusion resulting from terminology. ‘Majolica’ is also used in the UK to refer to a low firing clear glaze established by Mintons of Stoke on Trent during the mid-nineteenth century. It was developed to give a clear finish that would not ineract with colour applied beneath it. It was marketed as ‘Majolica’ in a an attempt to borrow cultural status from italian maiolica and really has no other conection whatsoever.

  12. Have a 4-canister set that are thin white probably ceramic, hand-painted in Italy with yellow, pink and purple flowers all with paler greenery signed by Ernestino (in cursive and haven’t confirmed the spelling need magnifying glass to confirm). The lids are the same green as the greenery. The hand-painted flowers are beautiful. On the bottom is a number that is maybe ‘fired’ into the ceramics and it’s hard to see but on the first line is either an “E” or an “8″ and 3 black hand-written initials, maybe ZLS??? I believe these to be approximately 60 years old. I would like to know the value. Thank you.

  13. Hi. I am looking for a specific piece of Majolica, I have a photo. I am taking a craze shot here, wondered if you would be able to help me find the manufacturer or distributor to buy one. If you send me an email, I can send the photo.

    Regards, Steve

  14. I recently received a gift and cannot identify it. It is a plate, 8-3/4 inches, Deruta Ceramiche Made in Italy. The rooster is standing on a fence and looks to be hand sketched. There is Italian handwriting all over the plate: top, right and bottom. The writing appears to be hand-done in brown. The title appears to be “Luz Campagne”? I would like to know what the plate says. Can you help?

  15. I own a lovely 14″ hand painted glossy white rooster with red wabble and details painted with black brush strokes. It is marked with black brush strokes, Italy. Ther is a small lid on the back of the rooster. It caught my eye a few years ago. I have been unable to find one like it.
    Thanks,
    Marilyn Moss

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