MAJOLICA: 2a - History
The Arabs conquered Spain in 714 AD, but technical knowledge about ceramic decorating did not reach the country until three centuries later. It is believed that it started at the beginning of the 9th century in Iraq, in the towns of Basra and Chuff. In the 9th century in Samarra, a town one hundred and fifty kilometers from Baghdad, they began producing large quantities of decorated ceramics. Their work was exported to Algeria, to the West, and Persia, to the East, where remains of it have been found.
In 969 AD, the Fatimids, whose capital was near Kairouan, now Tunisia, conquered Fustat, where they ruled for two hundred years and completely rebuilt the town. Fustat is the old name for Cairo, Egypt. It became a central crossroad for the Arab world. With Persia and Arabia on one side, the Mediterranean Africa on the other, and the neck of the Nile as a port to the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe, Fustat became an important town and provided work for craftsmen and artisans. A great deal of high-standard work was made and exported. It is believed it was from there that it moved on to begin in Europe starting in Malaga, which was then the main port for Islamic Spain, whose capital was Granada.
With the continuous wars during the Fatimid occupation in the 10th and 11th centuries, the craftsmen of Fustat were forced to move elsewhere to maintain their livelihood. The siege of 1169 AD resulted in the destruction of the town and the collapse of the Fatimid dynasty. The craftsmen lost their patrons and by the end of the 12th century the tradition had virtually disappeared. It is thought it could have been brought to Malaga from Egypt, by way of the Muslim settlements in the Mediterranean islands, which were on the trade route between both. Majorca was one of them and it is believed is where the name came from.
Boabdil, the last Arab ruler, was eight years old when he became the leader of the Arab kingdom in Spain. This was the start of the Arab settlement’s economic decline and with it the ceramic industry of Malaga. It had already spread to Valencia, the earliest record of it being made in Manises, Valencia. By the end of the 14th century, it had become a flourishing industry, still using the same production methods and the traditional Arab scripts and symbolism for decoration.
It started to be made in other towns, such as Talavera and Barcelona. The trade was in the hands of the local merchants, but Moorish craftsmen, who had moved from Andalusia to live and work in the peaceful and prosperous Christian kingdoms made this possible. The number of makers increased, as it was now being made not only for the wealthy families, but also for merchants, townspeople, religious communities, and was exported to the Mediterranean and the Low Countries. With this expansion, the Moorish traditions in decoration were gradually changing and being replaced with Christian motives. Early red-gold ware was gradually changing with the increase in production and cheaper materials, the colors could now be made without valuable metals. Plates, pots, tiles for walls, floors, and ceilings were all being produced with blue, a popular and predominant color.
Tiles in churches and private houses started to show figurative conventions It became an illustrated method of informing the illiterate public, decorations on church walls told Bible stories; chemist’s pots were decorated with plants and their Latin names; craftsmen and workmen doing everyday jobs were depicted; tiles showed the process of making wine, bread, oil, and many other specialties.
Then, in 1492, came the re-conquest and the Muslims became the alien minority in Spain. From then on until 1609, with the Inquisition, the entire Muslim population was banished. This affected families who had worked for centuries in carving, leather, iron-work, building, pottery, and every other craft. With this loss and competition from other countries, the ceramic industry in Spain was greatly affected.
The Majolica method started to be produced in Italy in the 15th century in the towns of Deruta and Gubbio and it became known as Maiolica; this change in spelling came about because “j” did not exist in the Italian language. To start with, it was greatly influenced by the Valencia style, leaving the background white, using similar figures, animals and borders, but they gradually developed it, creating beautifully different designs and colors. Using a dark background and the colors in a much more subtle way, the Italians became perfectionists in their work, in contrast to the more free and liberal brush-strokes used in Spain. It spread to other parts of Europe in the 16th century: Holland where it was known as Delft, France as Faience and then to England in the 17th century, where it lasted about one hundred and fifty years and was known by the name of Lambeth and now is known as Majolica.
In the nineteenth century Spain was affected by the disaster of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of the industrial revolution. In England in 1750, transfers were invented. At the same time England, France and the States, using the Majolica Methods, were inventing the first industrial ways of mass production. They were making jars, plates, statues and tiles. The industry sprang up in many parts of England, the main town being Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.
The first World Industrial Fair was held in London in 1851; it was an international success and influenced all the crafts in both industrial and artistic ways, showing new designs and methods of working. This trend lasted until about 1910 and nowadays, every piece made during that period has become a trophy for the collectors. What is strange is that at this time, in Spain, the last great ceramic business opened using the classical designs and methods. It was in 1908 in Talavera, and was known as Ruiz de Luna, named after its owner. It was internationally known and they exported to America and many other parts of the world. At the end of 1951 it closed, but the town now has a superb museum which displays the work of this firm and the private collection the owner made during his lifetime. The factories are now all industrial, not like before, when hundreds of men worked by hand. There are now a few small firms that continue working on this craft.
Note: Majolica History has 2 sections, to go to the next click on Majolica: 2b – History in Spain