Thursday, 16 June 2011

(un)Documenting a 16th century Spanish plate:

I am stewarding the Barony of Stormhold’s annual Winterfeast. In honour of their Majesties Gabriel de Beaumont and Constanzia Moralez y de Zamora. The theme is 1560, specifically the island of Djerba during Philip II of Spain’s reign. The feast will feature a number of A&S competitions as well as a themed tourney for heavy and rapier fighters. I wanted to make a 16th century plate for the overall winner of the A&S competitions. So I started where most people do: Google images. I trawled through and found the perfect item, a Spanish Tazza (Figure 1). Not only can the pattern be altered to be a compass rose (highly event appropriate), it’s also simple yet pretty. I then continued my search as I also planned on making plates for the royal couple and my household. A couple of hours of trawling through Victoria and Albert museum’s online image database later and I had unfortunately undocumented my plate. What follows is an simple analysis of the dominate trends within the Spanish 16th century ceramics of the V&A museum. Specifically, I examined use of colour, background fills and symbolism.

Figure 1. The Spanish plate in question. Sourced from Guest and Gray, antique porcelain and ceramics dealers based in England. The blurb states "Majolica Tazza Ref: N545. Majolica tazza, early 16th century decorated with a geometric design, the central roundel with a pointed star, the outer band with smaller stars with adjacent stylized leaves intersperse with cross-hatching ; diameter: 10 1/4in. 26cm. Condition: Three hair cracks and chip restored and a small missing portion to the rim.“ G&G were asking £750.00 for the item. ( Accessed 25/3/2011).

The Spanish plate displays imagery picked out in sun yellow and medium blue. Of the samples available via V&A, four use a darker blue exclusively. Of the rest of the plates, most use red/orange/brown/gold shades rather than start sun yellow. The ceramics utilising blue use it to highlight moulded features, to outline shapes or for heraldic reasons. (Figure 2a, b, c).

Figure 2: a) Moulded leaf patterns highlighted with a strong blue, plate from Manises 1525-1560. b) Dish featuring a deer (?) outlined in blue made in Manises 1500-1525. c) Bowl from Manises or Mislata 1500 featuring heraldry picked out in blue. (V&A)

The only item with similar strength of yellow I could find was not in the Victoria and Albert museum but in the Ashmolean. In this item it is clear the yellow is used to pick out moulded features while the blue is utilised as a solid background fill. Three potential theories for the lack of similar items in V&A, first a collection bias with the museum curator preferentially selecting the more delicate patterns, second a selection bias as the V&A search terms specified plate rather than tazza and third, the Spanish Tazza is not in fact Spanish but Italian.

Figure 3: Plate decorated with oak branches and leaves moulded in relief with a coat of arms in the centre. Attributed to the 'painter of the so-called Della Rovere dishes', active in Urbino (ITALY) in the 1540s. (Accessed via on 25/3/2011)

Crosshatching / background fill:
The Spanish Tazza features background fill of two styles, mono-colour cross hatching and dual colour line fill. Of the 100 plates available via V&A a majority of the plates use a dot and line background fill and/or floral shapes (Figure 4). The dot and line fill typically features a solid ellipsoid radiating between 4 and 7 lines inward tripling the size of the symbol. This is the closest fill found for the lines however of the examples sampled, all were mono-colour.

Figure 4: Plate originating from Triana between 1525 and 1550 displaying a distinctive dot/line and floral background fills. (V&A)

Only four examples of crosshatching were found. The first two are enclosed border decorations (Figure 5a and b) and the second set are enclosed floral symbols, leaves and pomegranates respectively (Figure 6a and b).

Figure 5: a) Enclosed crosshatching on the border of a plate from Triana 1525-1550. b) Border of a plate featuring enclosed crosshatching, Valencia 1525-1560. (V&A)

Figure 6: a) Leaf shaped enclosed crosshatching on a plate from Manises 1525-1575. b) Pomegranate featuring crosshatching fill, plate from Seville or Valencia 1525-1550. (V&A)

The Spanish Tazza is decorated with a geometric design featuring a central roundel with an 8 pointed star. There is nothing similar in the V&A collection. The closest to a plate dominated by a pointed star design is a singular dish. It features a nine pointed wave pattern which circles the central roundel (Figure 7). This dish, like much of the collection has a central roundel which is plain and displays a simple figure or heraldic symbol. The roundel is surrounded by line work and a band of outward strokes which have overtones of Latin calligraphy. The Spanish Tazza uses multiple lines in two shades of yellow to divide the roundel from the outer band.

Figure 7: Dish created in Triana between 1525-1550 featuring a 9 pointed wave / star pattern around the central roundel. (V&A)

The outer band of the Spanish Tazza features an outer band with smaller 8 armed stars with adjacent stylized leaves intersperse with cross-hatching. There are a number of popular stylistic trends when depicting leaves; elongate leaves, spiky leaves or a combination of the two usually moulded into the rim (Figure 8 a, b and c respectively). Less popular but still with multiple examples are the oak leaf shaped designs and the hollow leaf shapes through which the background fill is visible (Figure 9 a and b). None of the examples found in the V&S display a singular ovular leaf shape. Of the leaves examined, none are dual colour except the hollow examples (Figure 9b) which I believe are feature highlighting as discussed previously rather than leaves.

Figure 8: a) A dish made in Triana, Spain 1525-1550 featuring a leaf design with both floral and dot/line background fill. b) A dish made in Triana Spain 1500-1525 with a spiky leaf design. c) A dish from Reus crafted between 1575 and 1600 with a leaf shaped moulded and painted outer band. (V&A)

Figure 9: a) A dish made in Manises between 1525-1560, decorated with an oak leaf design. b) Dish made in Valencia featuring hollow leaf shapes the inside of which mirror the floral outer rim background fill pattern.(V&A)

Conclusions and discussion:
Upon examining the collection of 16th century ceramics available online through the Victoria and Albert museum, I can successfully undocumented the features of the Spanish Tazza. There is no evidence for a similar level of the use of blue pigment nor is there any consistent use of the sun yellow colour. There are however, similar items to the Tazza produced in Italy suggesting this item has been mis-categorized. While there is evidence for crosshatching used as a background fill it is primarily utilized in closed shapes rather than in open sections as found on the Tazza. The style of both the star and leaf shapes cannot be found on any other item within the database of over 100 images. I suggest that this item is probably not a Spanish Tazza and may in fact be Italian. It is also possible that it is younger than advertised but to successfully conclude this I would need to research Italian ceramics and examine the rear of the plate which would hopefully provide more clues about its origin.

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