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  • Dawn Cumming

The case of a rare piece of ‘Medici porcelain’

I’ve always been interested in ceramics, indeed long before I began studying the history of art I had a passion for English pottery and porcelain especially Minton porcelain. I attended Summer schools to learn more about the subject and even began to collect a few pieces of my own. I would scour antiques fairs and markets for an interesting piece at a bargain price and I soon got into the habit of turning a china cup or plate upside down to check its factory and date markings. Although the pottery and porcelain that I bought were of no real monetary value, to me they were priceless since they were aesthetically pleasing and I felt, worthy of occupying a shelf in a cabinet in my living room.

When I began studying the history of art my interest in pottery and porcelain widened to include the study of European ceramics especially Italian Renaissance Maiolica. Since I am also extremely interested in the use of plants and herbs in medicine I found myself particularly drawn to the wonderful painted tin-glazed earthenware ‘albarelli’ or apothecary jars that have survived from the period. The Victoria and Albert museum in London have some lovely examples including some that were produced for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

I was also fascinated to discover that the first European soft-paste porcelain was made in Florence between c.1575 and 1587 in a workshop under the patronage of Francesco I de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany who had a passion for alchemy. The porcelain produced in Florence was known as ‘Medici porcelain’ and it was made in imitation of the Chinese blue-and-white hard-paste porcelain that was held so precious in Italy during the Renaissance. It took about ten years of experimentation before the workshop in Florence could manufacture the soft-paste porcelain. The porcelain enterprise under Francesco only operated for about twelve years and since it was technically difficult and expensive to make. ‘Medici porcelain’ was produced in very small quantities. Only about seventy pieces are known today.

I am fortunate that my local museum the Ashmolean in Oxford contains one of these rare examples in the form of a very beautiful blue-and-white soft-paste porcelain ewer with floral pattern, (the aforementioned Victoria and Albert museum also houses a few fine pieces of ‘Medici porcelain’). The Ashmolean ewer is housed in its own glass case and is exquisite to behold . A nearby 19th century painting entitled ‘The Collector at Home’ portrays Charles Drury Edward Fortnum an art collector, historian and a member of the family who owned the grocery store Fortnum & Mason, holding the ewer (sorry the photo I took is not very good but it is very high up on the wall). He was one of the most generous benefactors to the Ashmolean.

The accompanying label informs us that the marking on the underside of the ewer is the Dome of Florence cathedral with the letter ‘F’ below. Yes you guessed it, how I would have loved to have turned this piece upside down to see it.

Reverse of dish (V&A museum) with Medici porcelain marking of the dome of Florence cathedral with the letter 'F' below

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