A maiolica plate signed ‘F.R.’


By no means every plate in early 16th century Italy told a story. Istoriato (literally ‘storied’) wares from that time form only a tiny minority among the mass of sherds unearthed by archaeologists. That so large a proportion of the maiolica that has survived above ground to be displayed in our museums today is of the istoriato class speaks less for the commonness of the ware at the time of its production than for the way it has been treasured ever since. The ordinary people did not eat off plates like the ones illustrated in this article; even the rich and powerful probably did not use them all the time. A whole range of more simply decorated or plain pottery, often delightful in its different way, was available for ordinary purposes. Admiration of the elaborately decorated istoriato wares may indeed not come easily to us in 1976, but if we will make the necessary effort of mind and adjustment of sensibility, there is much pleasure to be had from these bright-hued utensils, apt as they are to ‘quote’ not only from the Bible, Livy or Ovid, but also from the designs of the great painters of the day. 

The diffusion through Italy both of printed books with woodcut illustrations and of individual engravings underlays the development of the new istoriato style. The earliest experiments in narrative painting on maiolica date back to the end of the 15th century, but the important development came in the second decade of the 16th century. Modern Italian writers, following the late Gaetano Ballardini, have sought to distinguish a ‘first istoriato’ style characterised by the predominance of blue over otherwise pale or sombre colours, from a ‘second istoriato’ style characterised by a more vivid, warmer palette dominated by orange, yellow and strong green. The classification into a first and second istoriato style should not be pressed too far, because the development was neither uniform nor simultaneous in different localities, but if we apply Ballardini’s terminology at all, the small plate in figure 1 must be considered an early example of the second group, still displaying some characteristics of the first. 

The charming piece just mentioned has recently been presented to the National Gallery by the Felton Bequest Committee, on whose behalf it was purchased in London through Messrs Cyril Humphris by Dr Mary Woodall, the then Felton Adviser, at the recent dispersal of the late Sir Stephen Courtauld’s collection.1London, Sotheby & Co., 18 March 1975, lot 36. It is the purpose of this article to describe the piece and to outline a few of the problems surrounding it. 

Signatures are the exception not the rule on Italian renaissance maiolica. Even amongst the elaborate istoriato wares of the 16th century it is more common to find an inscription telling us about the subject depicted, or even about the date of execution, than about the painter. When a name, initials or a monogram are present, there is always a chance that these stand not for the painter but for the head of the workshop in which he was active, or the patron for whom the piece was destined. However, there is good reason to believe that the initials ‘F.R.’ that appear on the darkened edge of the tablet in the foreground of the plate in figures 1 and 2 really do stand for the painter, for a number of other pieces clearly by the same hand bear the same initials. 

The plate is of a shape often described by modern Italian writers as a tondino, that is, a small plate with a broad, gently-sloping rim that forms a rather sharp angle with the well. The base of the interior is very slightly convex. This shape2The shape of the plate is approximately like diagram 9 in Bernard Rackham, Catalogue of Italian Maiolica, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), 1940, (referred to henceforth as ‘Rackham, Catalogue’), I, p. 457. presented the narrative painters with a choice: either they could ignore the abrupt slope of the well altogether, often with disastrous consequences to the spatial illusion of their painting; or else as here they could treat border and centre as separate entities, allowing the well to remain as a relatively plain area in between. We may here discuss the border and the centre of Melbourne’s ‘F.R.’ plate separately, for they clearly represent two separate incidents. 

The subject of the scene on the border, Queen Dido receiving Aeneas in Carthage, is clearly indicated on a simulated marble plaque that lies propped against a broken column in the foreground. Here may be read the inscription: ‘.AENEUM.RECIPI/T.PULCRA.CAR/TAGINE.DIDO.’. (beautiful Dido receives Aeneas at Carthage). On the right, sure enough, Aeneas can be seen following Queen Dido of Carthage towards a colonnaded building. These two figures are rather closely copied not, as previous writers have claimed, directly from Marcantonio Raimondi’s Quos Ego print,3Bartsch XIV, 352. Reproduced by Antony de Witt, Marcantonio Raimondi, Incisore (Florence), 1968, Pl.LV. De Witt notes that not all writers have agreed with Bartsch that this print is after Raphael. but from a reversed copy dated 1516 of that print’s border subjects by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia (fig. 3). That F.R. followed Giovanni Antonio and not Marcantonio is shown not only by the reversal of the subject, but also by the way that the letter ‘h’ is omitted from the words ‘pulchra’ and ‘Carthagine’ in the inscription. Another plate signed by F.R. and representing a different episode in Dido’s love-affair with Aeneas is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (fig. 4),4Rackham, Catalogue, No 795, Pl. 126. and as this also is in reverse vis à vis Marcantonio’s print, it seems reasonable to suppose that once again F.R. followed a Giovanni Antonio da Brescia copy from the Quos Ego print rather than the original.5A. M. Hind, Early Italian Engravings, VI, 1948, Pl. 550. Whereas Marcantonio Raimondi’s Quos Ego print consists of a central Neptune subject bordered by other scenes from the Aeneid contained in panels, Giovanni Antonio da Brescia made three separate prints of the Neptune, the four lateral panels and the two lower panels.

The figures on the left-hand side of Melbourne’s F.R. plate (fig. 1 and cover photo) appear to be independent inventions of the painter, though it is possible that he took some hints for the two figures in the foreground from the figures who follow Dido and Aeneas on the Giovanni Antonio da Brescia print. The dog that lends animation to the plate’s foreground is evidently a free invention, while it is interesting to notice what a muddle F.R. made of his perspective for the foreground architecture, where he took leave of his engraved model. On the other hand the town seen over water in the background on the left is an original invention of great charm. 

The scene in the plate’s centre shows the tragic outcome of Dido’s love-affair when, deserted by Aeneas, she threw herself onto a sword before burning on a funeral pyre. The figure on the plate, which represents her with wildly streaming hair and with hands spread out (as described by Vergil) looks as though it too must have an engraved source, perhaps of slightly earlier date than Marcantonio and Giovanni Antonio. A rather similar figure appears in a border medallion of a dish ascribed to Cafaggiolo,6Illustrated by Bernard Rackham, Italian Maiolica (London), 1963 edition, Pl. 50 and Giuseppe Liverani, Five Centuries of Italian Maiolica (henceforth ‘Liverani, Maiolica’) (London), 1960, Pl. 38. and both figures could possibly bear some relationship to a figure of Thisbe on a pull taken from a niello.7See Paul Kristeller, ‘Die italienischen Niellodrucke und der Kupferstick des XV Jahrhunderts’, Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, XV, (Berlin), 1894, p. 109, fig, 4. I owe this reference to an annotation made by Bernard Rackham in his own copy of the Cook Collection Catalogue of 1903.

The colouring of the piece is exceptionally vivid, with strong blues and greens predominating, as was still usual in this phase of istoriato painting, and with turquoise, yellow, orange, black, white and manganese purple. In a few places the blue, greyish-black and manganese have bubbled somewhat in the firing, producing a speckled effect that is not disagreeable. The flesh-tints are executed in orange-brown, the highlights being touched in with white. The marble columns are mottled with a peculiar relish, and such marbling has been noted as a characteristic of F.R.’s style, though any maiolica painter wishing to represent marble would have been liable to adopt a somewhat similar manner of mottling, and several did. Another feature that may be thought rather characteristic of F.R. is the way in which the reflections in the water on the left of the plate are drawn like dribbles of dark blue pigment. 

The reverse of the plate is without decoration or inscription, and the buff fabric partially showing through the white tin-glaze gives a warm tone to the whole. From this side it is easy to see that damage has at some time been sustained by the border, from which five large pieces have broken and been restuck. The breaks are relatively clean, however, and despite the almost total absence of repaint on the decorated side, they are scarcely perceptible and do little to impair the plate as a work of art. On the analogy of a clock-face, when viewed from the painted or upper side the damage affects an area of the outer border from roughly eleven to seven o’clock. 

During the century and more in which Melbourne’s F.R. plate has been known to the literature of ceramics, it has most usually been attributed to Faenza. This was the attribution it bore when first mentioned in the 1863 first edition of William Chaffers’s Marks and Monograms on Pottery and Porcelain as ‘a beautiful plate, subject, Dido stabbing herself … in Mr Barker’s Collection’.8William Chaffers, Marks and Monograms, (London), 1863, p. 68. Joseph Marryat, A History of Pottery and Porcelain, only mentions this piece in his third edition, (London), 1868, p. 77, when he follows Chaffers in ascribing the piece to Faenza. Fortnum concurred in this attribution,9C. Drury, E. Fortnum, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Maiolica … in the South Kensington Museum, (London), 1873, pp. 516–7 and pp. 534–5; Maiolica, a Historical Treatise, (Oxford), 1896, pp. 261–2 and p. 93. which conformed with the influential J.C. Robinson’s attribution in 1856 to Faenza of another work signed by F.R.10J. C. Robinson, Catalogue of the Soulages Collection, (London), 1856, pp. 13–14. Alexander Barker’s collection of maiolica, some of which had come from the Palazzo Albani in Rome, was acquired en bloc in or about 1870 by Sir Francis Cook, and in 1904, while in the ownership of Cook’s son, Wyndham F. Cook, the collection was catalogued by the young Bernard Rackham. The F.R. plate now at Melbourne was described in this catalogue as ‘Faenza, Casa Pirota fabrique; c.1530–1540’.11Catalogue of the Art Collection, 8 Cadogan Square, (London), 1904, p. V and p. 8, No. 18. When the Cook collection was dispersed at Sotheby’s in 1925,12Christie’s, 7 July 1925, lot 89. the plate was sold for £410 to the dealer, Alfred Spero, and soon after must have passed to the late Stephen L. Courtauld, who exhibited it at the 1930 Exhibition of Italian Art held at Burlington House, London, when the attribution was still to the Casa Pirota at Faenza, though the date was given as ‘about 1520’.13Exhibition of Italian Art 1200–1900, Royal Academy, (London), 1930, p. 427, Case 950A. At the 1975 sale of the Courtauld Collection, the same date, ‘about 1520’ was given to the piece, but the cataloguer circumspectly avoided committing himself to one place of production rather than another. 

An attribution to Faenza of Melbourne’s Dido plate and of the whole group of wares signed by ‘F.R.’ was supported in 1933 by Bernard Rackham and Gaetano Ballardini when these two men, the greatest maiolica experts of their generation, joined forces to write an article on F.R. for Bollettino d’Arte.14Bernard Rackham and Gaetano Ballardini, ‘Il Pittore di Maiolica “F.R.”’, Bollettino d’Arte IX, 1933 (henceforth ‘Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino’), pp. 392–407. It is a tribute to their thoroughness that no further signed pieces have been published since, unless one excepts the plate in the British Museum with Solomon building the Temple, which they illustrated without mentioning that it was signed. This omission was perhaps symptomatic of a weakness in the article’s method, in not sufficiently distinguishing signed pieces from those that were merely attributed. With surprisingly little question, too, the authors lumped together with the pieces signed ‘F.R.’ at the front three further pieces inscribed and signed ‘F.L.R.’ at the back. In addition, they numbered among F.R.’s works a plate in the Museum at Arezzo to which lustre decoration and the date 1528 had been added at Gubbio.15Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 392, colour plate; p. 397, fig. 6; Liverani, Maiolica, Pl. 49. Rackham and Ballardini satisfied themselves about this last attribution on the grounds that the same figure of Hercules featured both on the Arezzo plate and on a much more tentatively painted unsigned plate dated 1522 and bearing the motto ‘OMNIA VINCIT AMOR’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum,16Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 394, fig. 2; Rackham, Catalogue, No. 793, Pl. 125. a rather weak argument, because this resemblance could easily be explained by dependence on a common graphic source. In any case the ‘OMNIA VINCIT AMOR’ plate is unsigned and F.R’s authorship of it can be disputed, though I myself incline to believe it is an early work of F.R’s. 

The matter could not rest there, for the Arezzo dish is inscribed at the back in a distinctive hand with its subject ‘D’Hercule e Deianira’ followed by a slanting flourish resembling a letter y or Greek letter phi. This y/φ flourish occurs on a number of pieces inscribed at the back in the same handwriting and sometimes bearing dates in the late 1520s, so that it is possible to assemble round the Arezzo plate quite a large group of istoriato wares, among which in my opinion may be numbered an attractive uninscribed plate at Melbourne (fig. 5). By 1938, Ballardini was inclining to the view not only that this y/φ series (or Serie del φ as he called it) was by F.R., but also that it represented a phase in the work of Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo,17Gaetano Ballardini, ‘Il Trentennio’, Faenza XXVI, VI, 1938, pp. 123–4. a painter who signed a large body of work bearing dates between 1530 and 1542, much of it inscribed as having been painted in Urbino. Melbourne possesses a characteristic signed example of Xanto’s work (fig. 6) representing Mutius Scaevola, with an inscription at the back giving the date as 1534 and ending with the signature ‘.Frā: Xāto/da Rovigo. T Urbino.’ The problem thus formulated concerned the relationship between four distinct groups of maiolica: 

1.             Pieces signed ‘F.R.’ at the front (eg. figs 1, 2 and 4) and wares directly similar to them. 

2.             Pieces of the ‘y/φ series’ (eg. fig. 5) many of them with inscriptions at the back terminating in that enigmatic flourish. In much that has been written since 1933, pieces comprising this group are unquestioningly described as by F.R. 

3.             Pieces (of which only three are recorded) with the initials ‘F.L.R.’ at the back. 

4.             Pieces variously signed by Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo (eg. fig. 6), all dating from after 1530. 

Bernard Rackham returned to the subject at the end of his life in an article entitled ‘Xanto and “F.R.”: an insoluble problem?’18Faenza XLIII, n. 5, 1957, pp. 99–113. in which he sought to counter the suggestion that the pieces signed F.R. and the pieces comprising the y/φ series must both be considered early works of Francesco Xanto Avelli. Rackham had to concede first of all a telling point unnoticed by previous writers, namely that a few pieces bearing the y/φ flourish were in addition signed by Xanto.19Eg. two pieces signed by Xanto and bearing the y/φ flourish, both in the Museo del Gastello Sforzesco at Milan, are illustrated from the back and the front in Aurelio Minghetti, Enciclopedia Biografica Italiana, XLI, Ceramisti, Milan, 1939, pp. 40 and 41. Only one of these two pieces was noted by Rackham in 1957. To these may be added a further signed Xanto plate with an allegory of Naples, Florence, Genoa and Rome, in the same museum. Yet another piece bearing both Xanto’s signature and the y/φ flourish is the piece dated 1531 illustrated by Tjark Hausmann, Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin. This might seem to have proved that the y/φ series was Xanto’s work, but Rackham was quick to point out that the y/φ flourish could scarcely be a signature, φ for Francesco, as Ballardini had perhaps hoped, let alone an X for Xanto, as Erdberg and Ross had read it,20Joan Prentice von Erdberg and Marvin C. Ross, Catalogue of the Italian Majolica in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1952, nos 48 and 49. for either of these interpretations would have meant that the painter had on occasion signed twice on the same piece. Rackham concluded that the y/φ flourish was the emblem not of an individual painter but of a workshop in which F.R. was probably joined by Xanto around 1530, the latter absorbing the former’s style and making use of the same engraved sources, yet evincing a more perfunctory manner and a less serious, less political personality. 

In 1971, writing on the maiolica at Polesden Lacey, I reviewed some of the arguments concerning the y/φ series and Xanto, reaching conclusions which, so far as they went, still seem to me valid.21J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Maiolica at Poleseden Lacey III: a New Look at the Xanto Problem’, Apollo, March, 1971, pp. 170–183. I take this opportunity of correcting two distracting misprints in the left-hand column of p. 182; line 21, for ‘credibly’ read ‘credibility’; second from last line, for ‘marks is’ read ‘makes it’. I suggested that the y/φ flourish was neither a signature nor the mark of a workshop, but simply ‘a space-filler, a habit of handwriting’, and that the handwriting of which it was characteristic was Xanto’s. I tried, I hope convincingly, to show that the y/φ series represented Xanto’s work mostly from a time immediately before 1530, the year when he began to sign his name on the backs of pieces. The uneven quality of Xanto’s signed work as compared with pieces from the y/φ series I considered due to increasing production after 1530, and sometimes to the intervention of studio collaborators. A change in tonality from the dominant blues of the y/φ series to the warmer tones of Xanto’s signed work I explained in terms of a change that came over all istoriato painting at Urbino around 1530, instancing a similar transformation in the style of Nicolò da Urbino. I inclined to the belief that the three pieces inscribed F.L.R. belonged to the 1527–9 phase of Xanto’s work, though I admitted I could offer no more than conjectures as to the possible meaning of the middle Initial L. 

Since at that time I was writing about a collection of maiolica that contained no pieces from the earlier 1520s either signed by F.R. or resembling those he signed, I excused myself from any prolonged discussion of whether the F.R. pieces really were early works of the painter responsible for the y/φ series and hence, in my view, of Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo. I considered it ‘possible, even probable’ that F.R. was the painter of the y/φ series but thought that Rackham and Ballardini had assumed this to be the case with far too little argument. I still feel reluctant to commit myself strongly over this aspect of the problem, partly because I do not yet see a clear-cut solution, partly because a full discussion would inevitably drag in a number of wider issues about early istoriato painting in Faenza and in the Duchy of Urbino that cannot be adequately aired in a single article. So I shall do little more here than indicate some of the ways, visual and biographical, in which the matter might be approached. 

To take the visual approach first, the division in style between the F.R. group and the y/φ series is rather abrupt; but if the Victoria and Albert’s ‘Gathering of the Manna’ dish,22Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 401, fig. 13; Rackham, Catalogue, no. 796 and Pl. 126. which bears the F.R. signature, is compared with the ‘Lion Hunt’ dish inscribed F.L.R. formerly in the Berney collection and now in the British Museum,23Illustrated, Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 404, fig. 19; Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 5, 1957, Pl. XLVIIIa and b; Bernard Rackham, Islamic Pottery and Italian Maiolica, (London), 1959 (henceforth ‘Rackham, Islamic’), no. 297, Pls. 128–9. some quite impressive similarities can be observed, not least in the manner of painting trees. Also, after a close examination of the landscape backgrounds of the two unsigned pieces in the Victoria and Albert Museum representing the deaths of Lucretia and Cleopatra respectively,24Rackham, Catalogue, nos 797 and 798, Pl. 126. Also Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 402, figs 14 and 15. it is hard to disagree with Rackham and Ballardini that these pieces can be linked to the signed F.R. group; yet the figures in their foregrounds, culled from Raphaelesque prints, show the hard outlines that we associate with the y/φ series and with Xanto. 

One tempting means of bridging the gap between the F.R. group and the y/φ series is to annex to the latter several plates that received lusted enrichment and dates ranging from 1524–7 at a second firing in Maestro Giorgio’s kilns at Gubbio. Ballardini evidently felt that such pieces were part of our problem, for in volume I or his Corpus he listed several of them as ‘Faenza, monogrammista F.R.?’ Particularly interesting as bridge-pieces are some plates with ‘1524’ and a cruciform mark incorporating a letter ‘S’ in lustre at the back, the latter probably a sign of ownership.25Gaetano Ballardini, Corpus della Maiolica Italiana (henceforth ‘Ballardini, Corpus’), I, (Rome), 1933, nos 161–5 and 297R–301R. Some plates of this set recall the painting of the Victoria and Albert’s ‘OMNIA VINCIT AMOR’ plate of 1522; others anticipate the style of the 1528 dish at Arezzo; but another seems to be by a hand distinct from and inferior to any of the pieces discussed here. I feel confident that several of the lustred pieces from 1524–7 belong to the F.R. group, while others belong to the y/φ group and are thus (in my belief) by Xanto; other pieces could arguably be claimed for either group. 

Comparison of the range of prints copied, an argument that I used in linking the y/φ group to the signed work of Xanto, does not lead us far in attempting to link the y/φ wares to the earlier F.R. group. I have to date noticed no other instance, besides the probable one of the Hercules noted by Rackham and Ballardini, of overlap between the graphic sources copied on the one hand by F.R. and on the other for y/φ pieces or signed works by Xanto. I was at first inclined to consider use of Marcantonio Raimondi’s Quos Ego print as common ground between F.R. and Xanto; but since Xanto appears to have used the original print by Marcantonio,26Eg. Gaetano Ballardini, Corpus, II (Rome), 1938, nos 20, 42 and 185. while F.R. used the reversed copies from it by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, this argument cannot be used in support of continuity between the works signed F.R. and those by Xanto. The figure of Deianira on the y/φ dish of 1528 at Arezzo appears to derive from the Quos Ego print, and it too faces the same way as on Marcantonio’s original. A link between the signed F.R. pieces and the y/φ series is rather hard to demonstrate, but the rapid development in style that one would have to assume is not inconceivable if we suppose the painter of the pieces signed F.R. to have been young. 

If Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo was (as I am convinced) the painter of the y/φ series and probably also of the three pieces inscribed ‘F.L.R.’, then anyone attempting to credit F.R. with these two last groups must fit his work into what is known of Xanto’s biography. What we know about Xanto as a man is deduced almost entirely from two sources: the inscriptions on his work, and a sequence of forty-two sonnets by him that has survived in the Vatican Library.27Guido Vitaletti, ‘Le rime di Francesco Xanto Avelli’, Faenza, VI, 1918, pp. 11–15 and 41–4.

From 1530, when he first began to sign his work in full, we know that Xanto was working ‘in Urbino’. But he constantly refers to himself as ‘da Rovigo’, that is from Rovigo, a town on the River Adige, mid-way between Padua and Ferrara, and in Sonnet XXIX he writes of the Adige as soaking and flooding the place where he was born. The initials F.R. could thus easily stand for Francesco Rovigese or Franciscus Rovigensis. The sonnet sequence was dedicated to and written in praise of Francesco Maria della Revere, Duke of Urbino, and must have been presented to him after 31 January 1537, since Sonnet XX refers to the Duke’s choice as Generalissimo of the league then being formed to fight the Turks. Xanto even nursed a romantic wish to follow his Duke on this crusade for, in evident reference to the River Xanthus near Troy, the ‘Frigio Xanto’ alluded to in Sonnet I, he writes in Sonnet XXXIX: 

‘Quindi nasce, Signor, ch’io t’amo e spero

Passar con teco insieme il sacro fiume

Del mio cognome, per Dio vivo e vero.’ 

 

(Thus it comes about, my Lord, that I love you and hope

to cross together with you the sacred river 

of my name, for the living and true God.)

One of Xanto’s livelier maiolica plates of the year 1538, showing Hector and Achilles fighting, also alludes to the River Xanthus.28Sold Christie’s, 16 June, 1969, lot 169. Nor can the sonnets have been presented later than 20 October, when the Duke died at Pesaro. From Sonnet III it appears that Xanto, trained as a painter, was ‘non anco venuto a gli sei lustri’, that is not yet 30, when he first felt inspired to write the praises of Duke Francesco Maria. The sonnets are all so similar in theme that they seem likely to have been composed in a fairly brief space of time, so that if they had been Xanto’s first poetic attempt we could have deduced that Xanto was not quite 30 in 1537–8, and must therefore have been born around 1507–9. However, he had clearly written at least one earlier poem in praise of Duke Francesco Maria, for a signed plate in the British Museum painted ‘in Urbino’ in 1532 shows an allegory that is explained by an inscription on the back that concludes: ‘Nel.XXV canto del Rovere vittorioso, di.F.X.A.R. pictor.’. This earlier poem, il Rovere Vittorioso, perhaps no longer extant, must therefore have been composed not later than 1532, which means that Xanto must have been nearly 30 by that year and hence was probably born soon after 1500. That would make him old enough to paint the ‘OMNIA VINCIT AMOR’ plate in 1522, yet young enough to have developed his style rapidly in the few years following. He would have been about 24 when Melbourne’s F.R. plate (figs 1 and 2) was painted; about 27 when fig. 5 was painted; about 33 when he painted fig. 6. The rapid development that we would have to assume if all these groups are by a single maiolica-painter seems to me possible if we think of Xanto as a young painter working at a time when a new style was being born; but to say that things could have happened in that way is no proof that they did. 

Whether the F.R. pieces are by Xanto or not, I still find it easier to believe they were painted at or near Urbino and not, as so many distinguished writers have suggested, at Faenza. The Melbourne tondino, for instance, has almost exactly the same white enamel pattern on its well as have pieces from the famous Correr Service at Venice,29Henry Wallis, XVII Plates by Nicola Fontana da Urbino at the Correr Museum, London, 1905; G. Mariacher, Maioliche Cinquecentesche del Museo Correr, Venice, n.d. figs 2 and 3. which has long been accepted as painted by Nicolò in the Duchy of Urbino,30That Nicolò worked at Fabriano around 1527 has been, I think rightly, contested by Jörg Rasmussen, ‘Zum Werk des Majolikamalers Nicolò da Urbino’, Keramos, 52/72, pp. 51–64. and the same pattern occurs on pieces by Nicolò at Berlin,31Tjark Hausmann, Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin, VI, Majolika, Berlin, 1972, no. 170. Oxford (fig. 7) and Amsterdam.32M-A Heukensfeldt-Jansen, Majolica, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 1961, Pl. 19. Indeed the shape of the tondino at Oxford and the disposition of the painting on it is far more like that of the Melbourne tondino than anything produced at this time in Faenza. If we agree with Rackham and Ballardini, as I am more than half-inclined to do, that F.R. went on to paint around 1528–30 pieces of the y/φ series like fig. 5, then it must surely be admitted that he was in the Duchy of Urbino by that time, for many y/φ pieces were lustred at Gubbio by Maestro Giorgio, and it is most unlikely that they would have been sent all the way from Faenza for that purpose. Certainly the y/φ series and the F.L.R. pieces often come very close to the style of Nicolò da Urbino; the very wreath of blue foliage on the back of the F.L.R. ‘Lion Hunt’ dish believed by Rackham to point towards Faenza,33Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, n. 5, 1957, p. 103. can be closely paralleled on the back of one of Nicolò’s monogrammed works dated 1521, now in Leningrad.34Compare Bernard Rackham, Islamic, Pl. 128B, with Burr Wallen, ‘A Majolica Panel in the Widener Collection’, Report and Studies, National Gallery of Art, (Washington), 1968, p. 97, fig. 5. 

Most of the arguments that have been advanced in favour of a Faenza origin for the signed F.R. pieces seem to me unconvincing, especially the one that rests on a supposed resemblance to the famous documentary dish at Bologna inscribed as having been made at the Casa Pirota in Faenza.35Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, pp. 399–400 and fig. 12. But see also Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 1957, p. 99 and J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Maiolica at Polesden Lacey III: a New Look at the Xanto Problem’, Apollo, March, 1971, p. 170. The one argument which does have a certain weight is that based on two signed F.R. pieces decorated on a pale blue (berettino) ground, a method of decoration believed to have been virtually confined to Faenza at the date that concerns us. The first of these two berettino pieces inscribed F.R. is a rectangular plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum, painted with an efficient but somewhat dry rendering of Christ carrying the cross, after Agostino Veneziano’s engraving of 1517 from the painting by Raphael known as the Spasimo di Sicilia.36Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 405, fig. 20, Rackham, Catalogue, no. 799 and Pl. 126. This plaque is so different in style from all the other pieces signed by F.R. that in 1957 Rackham expressed some hesitation in accepting it as by the same painter as the other pieces signed F.R., though he considered it contemporary with them.37Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 1957, p. 99. In his catalogue of the Victoria and Albert Museum Rackham dated this piece, surely correctly, ‘about 1525’. Yet the stylistic arguments Rackham and Ballardini had cautiously advanced earlier, in favour of the Spasimo plaque being by the same painter as the other F.R. marked pieces, still carry a degree of conviction. One could perhaps suppose that the young Xanto had at some time around 1525 deliberately entered into competition with the painters of Faenza, adopting for the purpose of this particular work the manner of hatching that some of them had learnt from their study of prints. He may even have done so during a temporary visit to their city; if he had ever revisited his native Rovigo, he would as likely as not have passed through Faenza on the way. 

If the Spasimo plaque really is by the same F.R. as Melbourne’s plate, it must, none the less, be agreed that it is very different in handling from another piece signed F.R. that is also painted on a blue berettino ground, the Victoria and Albert’s ‘Dido’ plate (fig. 4). This last piece fits into the group of signed F.R. pieces without difficulty, and is particularly close in manner to Melbourne’s F.R. plate (figs 1 and 2). Even if the Spasimo plaque is excluded from consideration, the adoption of a berettino ground does suggest some brief influence from Faenza, though an influence that affected F.R.’s palette and not his manner of drawing and composing. 

To sum up, I believe Melbourne’s newly acquired plate with the signature F.R. to have been painted around 1525 under strong influence from Nicolò da Urbino, and therefore almost certainly in the Duchy of Urbino. I am however prepared to concede that some of F.R.’s works show a momentary awareness of maiolica styles at Faenza. I still think it probable, if unproven, that the painter signing F.R. developed into the painter of the y/φ series, whom in turn I have no hesitation in identifying as Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo. But whatever the truth about authorship and place of production I hope many people will agree that Melbourne’s F.R. plate, with its brilliant colouring and its dramatic rendering of Queen Dido’s tragedy, concentrates within its small diameter much that we value most about that learned, passionate, cruel but pictorially gifted period, the Italian Renaissance. 

J. V. G. Mallet, Keeper, Department of Ceramics, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (in 1976).

Notes

1              London, Sotheby & Co., 18 March 1975, lot 36. 

2              The shape of the plate is approximately like diagram 9 in Bernard Rackham, Catalogue of Italian Maiolica, Victoria and Albert Museum (London), 1940, (referred to henceforth as ‘Rackham, Catalogue’), I, p. 457. 

3              Bartsch XIV, 352. Reproduced by Antony de Witt, Marcantonio Raimondi, Incisore (Florence), 1968, Pl.LV. De Witt notes that not all writers have agreed with Bartsch that this print is after Raphael. 

4              Rackham, Catalogue, No 795, Pl. 126. 

5              A. M. Hind, Early Italian Engravings, VI, 1948, Pl. 550. Whereas Marcantonio Raimondi’s Quos Ego print consists of a central Neptune subject bordered by other scenes from the Aeneid contained in panels, Giovanni Antonio da Brescia made three separate prints of the Neptune, the four lateral panels and the two lower panels.   

6              Illustrated by Bernard Rackham, Italian Maiolica (London), 1963 edition, Pl. 50 and Giuseppe Liverani, Five Centuries of Italian Maiolica (henceforth ‘Liverani, Maiolica’) (London), 1960, Pl. 38. 

7              See Paul Kristeller, ‘Die italienischen Niellodrucke und der Kupferstick des XV Jahrhunderts’, Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, XV, (Berlin), 1894, p. 109, fig, 4. I owe this reference to an annotation made by Bernard Rackham in his own copy of the Cook Collection Catalogue of 1903. 

8              William Chaffers, Marks and Monograms, (London), 1863, p. 68. Joseph Marryat, A History of Pottery and Porcelain, only mentions this piece in his third edition, (London), 1868, p. 77, when he follows Chaffers in ascribing the piece to Faenza. 

9              C. Drury, E. Fortnum, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Maiolica … in the South Kensington Museum, (London), 1873, pp. 516–7 and pp. 534–5; Maiolica, a Historical Treatise, (Oxford), 1896, pp. 261–2 and p. 93. 

10           J. C. Robinson, Catalogue of the Soulages Collection, (London), 1856, pp. 13–14. 

11           Catalogue of the Art Collection, 8 Cadogan Square, (London), 1904, p. V and p. 8, No. 18. 

12           Christie’s, 7 July 1925, lot 89. 

13           Exhibition of Italian Art 1200–1900, Royal Academy, (London), 1930, p. 427, Case 950A. 

14           Bernard Rackham and Gaetano Ballardini, ‘Il Pittore di Maiolica “F.R.”’, Bollettino d’Arte IX, 1933 (henceforth ‘Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino’), pp. 392–407. 

15           Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 392, colour plate; p. 397, fig. 6; Liverani, Maiolica, Pl. 49. 

16           Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 394, fig. 2; Rackham, Catalogue, No. 793, Pl. 125. 

17           Gaetano Ballardini, ‘Il Trentennio’, Faenza XXVI, VI, 1938, pp. 123–4. 

18           Faenza XLIII, n. 5, 1957, pp. 99–113. 

19           Eg. two pieces signed by Xanto and bearing the y/φ flourish, both in the Museo del Gastello Sforzesco at Milan, are illustrated from the back and the front in Aurelio Minghetti, Enciclopedia Biografica Italiana, XLI, Ceramisti, Milan, 1939, pp. 40 and 41. Only one of these two pieces was noted by Rackham in 1957. To these may be added a further signed Xanto plate with an allegory of Naples, Florence, Genoa and Rome, in the same museum. Yet another piece bearing both Xanto’s signature and the y/φ flourish is the piece dated 1531 illustrated by Tjark Hausmann, Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin.

20           Joan Prentice von Erdberg and Marvin C. Ross, Catalogue of the Italian Majolica in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1952, nos 48 and 49. 

21           J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Maiolica at Poleseden Lacey III: a New Look at the Xanto Problem’, Apollo, March, 1971, pp. 170–183. I take this opportunity of correcting two distracting misprints in the left-hand column of p. 182; line 21, for ‘credibly’ read ‘credibility’; second from last line, for ‘marks is’ read ‘makes it’. 

22           Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 401, fig. 13; Rackham, Catalogue, no. 796 and Pl. 126. 

23           Illustrated, Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 404, fig. 19; Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 5, 1957, Pl. XLVIIIa and b; Bernard Rackham, Islamic Pottery and Italian Maiolica, (London), 1959 (henceforth ‘Rackham, Islamic’), no. 297, Pls. 128–9. 

24           Rackham, Catalogue, nos 797 and 798, Pl. 126. Also Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 402, figs 14 and 15. 

25           Gaetano Ballardini, Corpus della Maiolica Italiana (henceforth ‘Ballardini, Corpus’), I, (Rome), 1933, nos 161–5 and 297R–301R. 

26           Eg. Gaetano Ballardini, Corpus, II (Rome), 1938, nos 20, 42 and 185. 

27           Guido Vitaletti, ‘Le rime di Francesco Xanto Avelli’, Faenza, VI, 1918, pp. 11–15 and 41–4.

28           Sold Christie’s, 16 June, 1969, lot 169. 

29           Henry Wallis, XVII Plates by Nicola Fontana da Urbino at the Correr Museum, London, 1905; G. Mariacher, Maioliche Cinquecentesche del Museo Correr, Venice, n.d. figs 2 and 3. 

30           That Nicolò worked at Fabriano around 1527 has been, I think rightly, contested by Jörg Rasmussen, ‘Zum Werk des Majolikamalers Nicolò da Urbino’, Keramos, 52/72, pp. 51–64. 

31           Tjark Hausmann, Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin, VI, Majolika, Berlin, 1972, no. 170. 

32           M-A Heukensfeldt-Jansen, Majolica, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 1961, Pl. 19. 

33           Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, n. 5, 1957, p. 103. 

34           Compare Bernard Rackham, Islamic, Pl. 128B, with Burr Wallen, ‘A Majolica Panel in the Widener Collection’, Report and Studies, National Gallery of Art, (Washington), 1968, p. 97, fig. 5. 

35           Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, pp. 399–400 and fig. 12. But see also Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 1957, p. 99 and J. V. G. Mallet, ‘Maiolica at Polesden Lacey III: a New Look at the Xanto Problem’, Apollo, March, 1971, p. 170. 

36.          Rackham and Ballardini, Bollettino, p. 405, fig. 20, Rackham, Catalogue, no. 799 and Pl. 126. 

37           Bernard Rackham, Faenza XLIII, 1957, p. 99. In his catalogue of the Victoria and Albert Museum Rackham dated this piece, surely correctly, ‘about 1525’.