Maiolica Madness: Conserving a tin-glazed maiolica dish from Savona, Italy for The Courtauld Gallery, London
By Derrin Compton, Rosie Blay, Kate Galatian and Shawn Kwan, Conservation of Ceramics and Related Materials students
In 2018, we were delighted to be asked by The Courtauld Gallery in London during their temporary closure for a major refurbishment known as 'Courtauld Connects', to treat a large maiolica dish, possibly made in the 17th century in Savona, Italy (Figure 1). The term 'maiolica' refers to tin-glazed earthenware ceramics first made during the period of the Italian Renaissance. The light-coloured, opaque tin-glaze provided a background over which cobalt blue decorations were applied, visually similar to blue and white Chinese porcelain which European factories sought to replicate. The dish was probably made using a plaster press-mould, over which clay would have been laid and pressed into the form to create the low relief designs on the recto.
The dish's decorations depict siren-like figures with wings and tentacles. Between the sirens near the rim are alternating large and small clamshells, and ornate grotesques are located between the sirens closer to the dish's well. The tentacled sirens and the clam shells may be indicative of maritime symbolism which would have had significant meaning to the owners at the time. The putti with the crown above the central heraldry may indicate that this plate was made to commemorate a union or marriage.