The Portland Vase, £5.00
Diameter: 24.800 cm
Gift of C.D.E. Fortnum
Room 46: Europe 1400-1800
Florence, Italy, about AD 1575-87
Among the first European porcelain
This soft-paste porcelain plate is painted in underglaze blue with floral designs, the reverse with the Dome of Florence Cathedral. On the back of the plate is an 'F', the mark of the Medici porcelain workshop.
The translucent porcelain that reached Europe from China by the mid-fifteenth century was regarded with great wonder, and was highly prized among collectors. The Venetian traveller Marco Polo, who spent a number of years in China at the court of Kublai Khan, had seen porcelain being made, calling it porcellana, the Italian word for a type of white shell, and which soon became the standard term all over Europe. In the early and mid-sixteenth century, documents reveal that attempts were made in Venice and Ferrara to make porcelain, but no examples survive.
In Florence, Grand Duke Francesco de'Medici (died 1587) was recorded in 1575 as having found the secret of making porcelain after years of trials and experiments. The porcelain produced in the Medici workshop is generally considered the first European porcelain, although the body and glaze are in fact based on Near Eastern and maiolica techniques. The paste formula and the high temperatures required in the firing kilns were difficult to achieve, and the project proved extremely costly: after Francesco's death, production dwindled. The forms are usually based on European metal and maiolica examples, while the decoration, although inspired by Chinese porcelain, is part of the maiolica tradition.
T. Wilson, Ceramic art of the Italian Ren, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)
W.D. Kingery and P.B. Vandiver, 'Medici porcelain', FAENZA, 70 (1984)
G. Cora and A. Fanfani, La porcellana dei Medici, Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri (Milan, Fabbri, 1986)
M. Spallanzani, Ceramiche alla corte dei Medic (Modena, 1994)