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Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Maiolica salt cellar
From Urbino, Italy, dated AD 1532
With the arms of the Pucci family of Florence
This maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware) salt cellar is signed by Francesco Xanto Avelli 1486/7-?1542), one of the most prominent and influential of painters working in Urbino, who described himself as 'painter' or 'poet'. With the advent in Italy of istoriato ('story-painted') painting on maiolica, the most gifted and successful painters were recognized as artists in their own right. A number signed, inscribed and dated their work.
Salts usually formed part of an elaborate set of tableware, which might comprise large basins, jugs and flasks, and dishes of varying shapes and sizes. Sets were commissioned by wealthy families, and usually commemorate a marriage, or receipt of an honour such as appointment as cardinal. They were also used for diplomatic gifts. These sets demonstrate the highest achievement of the maiolica painter's art. The small scale and irregular shape of the salt did not allow for a full istoriato scene, and were consequently decorated with moulded animal forms and with painted 'grotesques'. This term referred to painting in fantastical style, used to describe the influential decoration by Raphael of the Vatican Loggias, of about 1519.
Over thirty pieces survive from this set, each of which bears the arms of the Pucci family within a shield under an ombrellino ('umbrella'), which indicates a connection with the Papacy.
D. Thornton, 'Maiolica production in Renaissance Italy' in Pottery in the making: world-7 (London, The British Museum Press, 1997), pp. 116-21
T. Wilson, Ceramic art of the Italian Ren, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)