The “Arlecchini” from Montelupo in the History of Italian Ceramics

Italian ceramics history: MontelupoMade with earth, water and fire, ceramics are by definition functional to human life.

Since the very beginning of ceramic making, though, the need to go beyond the sheer utilitarianism pushed the artist to use clay as a way of expressing ideas, feelings and meanings.

During the Renaissance Italian potters achieved the perfect union of function and art that would bring Italian ceramics world wide celebrity.
Noble families and wealthy merchants were in competition for the most richly decorated istoriato wall plates, whose subjects were very often derived from religion, myth and history.

Simple people certainly could not understand nor afford this kind of traditional Italian ceramics. They mostly used pottery for functional purposes, although here and there some local ceramic trends developed for the community to enjoy. One of the most worth mentioning is the “Arlecchini” from Montelupo, in Tuscany.

Arlecchino (Harlequin) is the name of the most popular servant character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, a humorous theatrical presentation also known as “Italian Comedy”. It originated in Italy in the second half of the 16th century as a reaction to the classic, rigid plays, whose subjects were often very far from the ordinary person. With Italian Comedy we go for the exact opposite: masked mischievous servants, cowardly military officers, mean merchants were the key characters of the anarchic plays, often staged in temporary outdoor structures with a minimal set.

The Arlecchini from Montelupo had very much in common with the Italian Comedy: just as the Commedia dell’Arte was born as a popular alternative to classical “high” theatre, the Arlecchino from Montelupo represented a popular digression from the sumptuous istoriato ceramics in vogue during the Renaissance.

Let’s have a closer look at the Arlecchini.

From the collection of Victoria & Albert MuseumThey were born at the beginning of the 17th century in Montelupo Fiorentino, a small village, located just on the outskirts of Florence, in Tuscany.

During the Renaissance, Montelupo was famous all over Europe for its magnificent ceramics, whose growth in quality and quantity had been stimulated by the request of rich and noble families from Florence.

When the European economy began to decline, at the end of the Renaissance, it had a very strong impact on the orders of traditional Italian ceramics.
The potters from Montelupo saw their business slowly decline and developed their own, original reaction to the crisis. They started a new ceramic style which represented a popular evolution of both the traditional styles and contents. At the same time the new ceramic pieces were more affordable, thus allowing simple people to enjoy them as well.

In terms of style, the sumptuous istoriato majolica once requested by the rich families from Florence was simplified into a figurative genre, more in accordance with the satiric and caricatural purpose of the pieces.

The palette was limited to a few, bright colors
– turquoise, yellow, orange – applied with quick and resolute brush strokes, almost as in sketches. The plates had a yellow background, with the figures taking all the space, without any additional rim decoration.

The content was no longer inspired by myth or religion. It had to do with the life of ordinary people, with their miseries, their small triumphs, their favorite games, in a tone that was always humorous, although never totally devoid of a bit of sadness – a hint of the hardship of folk life. Less often it also dealt with contemporary historical or cultural events.
Reproductions of figures from playing cards were also popular at the beginning of the production. Then reapers, peasants, poachers, soldiers, robbers, rascals, fishermen or innkeepers were the key characters, most of them elementarily painted in an arrogant and burlesque attitude. Some artisans even painted remarks and comments with their characters, thus unawarely manufacturing the first comics in ceramic art…

Decorative plates were the favorite items, although some figurines were also made at the end of the artistic trend.

The Arlecchini have been a unique ceramic art expression from Montelupo for almost three centuries. They provided the local potters the chance to express their view of contemporary society and – to be honest – a source of money in an age when Italian ceramics had lost most of their artistic appeal.

Although they are considered folk art, the appeal of the Arlecchini as a collectible ceramic piece has always been very strong. International museums as well as private collectors consider them a precious piece for their Italian ceramic collections, like the beautiful Arlecchino plate owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

If you happen to travel in Italy, don’t miss the splendid collection owned by the Museum of Montelupo, recently expanded with the addition of 6 valuable plates donated by the antique dealer and art collector Guido Bartolozzi in September 2007.

2 thoughts on “The “Arlecchini” from Montelupo in the History of Italian Ceramics

  1. I have a large ornamental bowl I would like to email you to try get some information and possible valuation ?

  2. I have some plates from italy that i would like to email pictures of Trying to find out what they are and what they may be worth.

    Thank you,

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