medium image
Photo: Joachim Rotteveel

Sgraffito - Italy

In the late medieval period, sgraffito wares started to get manufactured in northern Italy (in particular in the Po Valley), copying Byzantine prototypes. Especially Venice was an important production centre, starting with the manufacture of sgraffito wares in the mid 13th century. The earliest types featured very simple incised motifs, such as spirals and circles. A century later, a new type of sgraffito ware came into fashion in the Po Valley with different decorative motifs, such as stylized pomegranates and palmettes, which were further enhanced with polychrome colours, such as green, brown, ochre-yellow.

From then onwards, these so-called polychrome sgraffito wares became the standard type of pottery in Italy, being cheaper and rougher-made than maiolica. During the 15th century the sgraffito decoration became more elaborate and more complex, adapted to the demands of Italian Renaissance patrons and consumers. The sgraffito decoration included not only motifs of a vegetal and geometric character, but also animals and portrait-busts surrounded with fish-grate designs.

Three base fragments of these polychrome sgraffito wares of the Renaissance period, in Italy also known as 'ceramica graffita rinascimentale' (del genere amatorio), show the incised profiles of a man and two women (A 3541, A 3571 and F 9421). These portrait-busts are a common amatory motif for this type of ware all through the Renaissance. These three fragments probably originate from the Veneto-region (Padua?), and can be dated in the second half of the 15th century. The incised motif is enhanced with alternating green and ochre-yellow colours. These tend to run into the lead glaze so that the washy effect of the colour contrasts with the incised design and the orange-red clay under the glaze.

It has been suggested that these portrait dishes of Renaissance men and women often were given as betrothal or wedding gifts to the other sexes. They feature certain repeated amatory subjects: shrubs on either side of the portrait, rosettes symbolizing good wishes, the rollered embossing of the background and the so-called hortus conclusus, a symbolic garden with a wicker fence, which appears in increasingly stylized form. Italian sgraffito ceramics with amatory subjects also include pieces featuring animals symbolizing conjugal virtues or gifts; for example, the rabbit for fertility and the fawn for docility.

Noteworthy is the base fragment of Italian Sgraffito Ware with the image of a winged lion incised on the inside (no. A3538, see fig. x). This is probably the Lion of St. Mark representing the Venetian Republic. The winged Lion of St. Mark is widely found as a symbol of the Venetian Republic in various parts of the Mediterranean that were under Venetian domination. These lions are normally incorporated into gateways and conspicuous parts of the Venetian fortifications and public buildings, their purpose being to denote the authority of Venice. However, incised depictions of the Lion of St. Mark on ceramics are rare. Apart from the Rotterdam fragment, two sgraffito pieces were until now found in Venice and its surroundings.

Two hemispherical sgraffito bowls in a fine, very hard red clay are of a later date. Of both vessels, only the interior is coated with a white slip for incised designs. One bowl (F 4938) has the typical design of late polychrome sgraffito ware from Pisa. Concentric lines enclose a central stemmed flower (but a bird or a heraldic shield are also possible), surrounded by a stylized wreath-like or geometric band on the rim. Splashes of green and yellow-brown enliven the incised decoration. This type of late sgraffito ware from Pisa has been found in Genoa and in Plymouth (in England) in archaeological contexts datable between circa AD 1550 and 1650.

The other bowl fragments, on the other hand, have an incised and reserved decoration on the inside with greater areas of slip removed and covered with a pale yellow glaze (F 5901). The elaborate reserved decoration on the inside includes a so-called ‘Catherine wheel’ pattern in the centre, surrounded by a broad stylized floral band. This type of sgraffito pottery is in Italy also known with the long name ‘ceramica graffita a punta e a stecca’. The decoration is typical for Pisa and Montelupo in central Italy. In fact, the Arno Valley was the largest producer of Italian sgraffito pottery in the 16th and 17th centuries. Polychrome sgraffito wares from Pisa seem to have been the distributed throughout the Mediterranean: eastwards to Egypt and Turkey; westwards to southern France and Spain. These Pisan sgraffito wares were even traded up to the North (to England and the Dutch Republic), as well as over the Atlantic Ocean (to the Americas). Perhaps as a result of this, the term sgraffiato is nowadays an English 19th century pseudo-Italian word.