A Maiolica Gem: Francesco Xanto Avelli’s Istoriato Dish
British Museum collections of Italian Renaissance maiolica - a tinglazed earthenware - were acquired in Victorian times by august institutions such as the Victorian and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. These public collections are of national importance and illustrate very clearly the colour, range and depth of Italian pottery produced in that artistic period known as the Italian Renaissance.
It is a rare occasion when an undocumented collection of Italian Renaissance maiolica formed in the 19th century comes to light in this country. Lyon & Turnbull offered, in one of their specialist Fine Antiques auctions, this outstanding maiolica ‘istoriato’ dish from a previously unrecorded collection of maiolica that reflects the same fascinating aspects of this type of pottery. After fierce competition between bidders in both the room and on the telephone the dish eventually sold for a premium inclusive £391,250.
This small gem of a collection is crowned by a hitherto undocumented large dish decorated by one of the most remarkable pottery decorators of all time – Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo (c. 1486-c. 1542) who worked most of his life in the Italian town of Urbino. He was responsible for a body of beautifully illustrated maiolica, decorated with narrative themes painted from rim to rim in the so called ‘istoriato’ style. Unusually for a potter at this time, Xanto was an example of a true Renaissance man. He was an educated man with strongly declared-allegiances to the ‘condottiere’ Duke-Francesco Maria I della Rovere of Urbino. He was a composer of sonnets and the themes he used to illustrate his pottery reflect a deep concern with contemporary historical events and a love and knowledge of classical literature. That same classical literature, now appearing in printed books and sometimes translated into Italian was enthralling, enchanting and inspiring the Renaissance world.
This large dish is decorated with a classical scene from the Life of Cyrus. The subject was known to Xanto through the writings of the classical historian Justin, an inspiration for his work throughout the 1530s. Many of the figures on the dish are sourced from prints after contemporary Renaissance paintings by artists such as Raphael, Giulio Romano and Parmigianino. Typically, Xanto would literally ‘copy and paste’ figures from these prints. Modern art historians and researchers take a keen interest in tracing these borrowed image elements, so literally and liberally lifted, and incorporated into his own narrative scenes. The source prints are often of different subject matters and several elements from several images could be combined by Xanto in one single ‘istoriato’ scene. The reverse of this dish is signed and dated 1537.
Altogether, this was a shining example of Xanto's work at a highpoint in his career. Its emergence was of interest to collectors and scholars across the world.