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12 October - 16 October 2022
The Regent's Park


Nicola and the Urbino School


Myths and Legends on Renaissance Italian Maiolica


Istoriato, literally meaning story-telling, is a term most often associated with the sophisticated and brightly coloured ceramic ware known as maiolica. Evolving from attempts to produce objects in imitation of rare Chinese porcelain in Renaissance Italy, the idea of covering the entire white surface with depictions of mythological and classical subjects, as if they were paintings, was highly original and would go on to exert an influence on pottery decoration throughout Europe for the following century.


The city of Urbino, with the fabulous palace built by the great humanist patron Federico da Montefeltro and the nearby town of Castel Durante were at the epicentre of this new decorative style. Urbino was the birthplace of Raphael who at the time of his death in 1520 was the most famous painter throughout Italy, contesting for Papal commissions with Michelangelo, perhaps the only one who did not mourn his passing. After the reinstallation of the Della Rovere family as Dukes of Urbino in 1521, maiolica painters, particularly Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe (known as Nicola da Urbino), began to incorporate the designs of Raphael in the decoration of their ceramic pieces, exploiting his connection with Urbino. It is thought that Raphael’s closest associate, Giulio Romano, may have left the drawings from his workshop with collectors in Urbino in 1524 when he stopped there on his way to Mantova to create the Palazzo Te.


Certainly the first great flourishing of the istoriato style was in the following years from 1525 to 1540 with services made for prestigious Italian clients such as Isabella d’Este and the Pucci in Florence, as well as important foreigners like Anne de Montmorency, the Connétable de France (second only to the king) and rich merchant families in Augsburg and beyond in the Holy Roman Empire. The richness and sophistication of the decoration was so painstaking that other pottery production centres were only able to carry on the style through one or two talented artists who are often thought to have had some connection with Urbino. In fact Urbino’s success may have led to one great pottery centre, Faenza, renouncing any attempt at competition and developing a whole new style emphasising how white they could make the glaze, the so-called bianco di Faenza, thereby giving a name to the type of ceramics known as faience.


This white decoration in turn was absorbed by the great pottery workshops of the Fontana and the Patanazzi in Urbino in the 1560s and 1570s, who created the white ground grotesques decoration in response, framing the istoriato scenes with fantastic designs that derived from Raphael’s drawings inspired by his visits to the ruins of the Roman Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea many years before. Urbino painters found themselves in demand beyond the borders of Italy and began to emigrate, inspiring a last great flourishing of the istoriato style in the French cities of Lyon and Nevers, before finally succumbing to the easy availability of blue and white Chinese porcelain from about 1650.

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