Majolica

The definition of majolica and where it originated from

A majolica plate decorated with a bowl of fruit.
A majolica plate decorated with a bowl of fruit, currently on display at the Harlinger Aardewerk Museum, in the Nertherlands. Image Courtesy of 23dingenvoormusea (Flickr)

Definition: Majolica (noun) is a type of pottery in which an earthenware clay body (usually a red earthenware) is covered with an opaque white glaze (traditionally a lead glaze including tin), then painted with stains or glazes and fired.

Majolica History

Tin-lead glazes were well-known around the Mediterranean, but this style of painting on a white opaque glaze became associated with the wares that the potters of the island of Majorca (aka Maiorca) exported far and wide.

These wares at first were more associated with the use of luster overglazes that had been introduced through the Moorish invasion of the Spanish peninsula in the 8th century. Later, especially during and after the 15th century, the term "majolica" referred not only to lusterware, but all tin-lead glazed ware produced on the island or reminiscent of it. Majolica is also reported to have been used widely in Iran or the Middle East since the 9th century. 

Faience and delft wares are offshoots of the majolica wares exported to Italy. They are very similar tin-glazed ware. Faience wares (first produced in the Italian town of Faenza) and later wares produced in the town of Delft have a slightly different visual flavor from Mediterranean majolica. Faience was traditionally produced on a very pale earthenware clay, while Delft is a very distinctive blue and white tin-glazed pottery that was produced in the Netherlands in around the 16th century.

Sometimes the work was known as istoriato wares, which means 'painted with stories'. 

Majolica Today

Today's potters should avoid the traditional recipes used in the original majolica wares. Lead glazes are highly toxic and are to be completely avoided. Instead, many potters working in a majolica style use commercially produced frits in their glaze recipes, or use commercial white glazes.

Raw oxides may still be used, but so are commercially produced stains and glazes.

Because of recent advances in commercial ceramic material production, many potters are now able to replicate majolica-type colors and styles in mid-range wares. This makes the pottery much stronger and suitable for use.

Benefits of working with majolica 

There are plenty of benefits of working with majolica, one of the biggest is that majolica is typically a less expensive glaze technique, as it can be bisque fired on cone 3 and glaze fired on cone 4 and you can do all your decoration in one firing. What's brilliant about the fact that majolica can be fired at such a low temperature is that the colors are so much brighter, creating some fantastic results. As majolica is like having a lovely white, blank canvas, it's also great for showing off intricate brush work as the lines of the colored glaze on top of majolica remain very precise. It also tends to be very viscous, meaning that the glaze doesn't move so much in the firing process.  

Tips for working with majolica

The first tip you'll need when working with majolica is to make sure you have a good base to start with. Once your bisque fired piece is ready then carefully sand it down, so you have a very smooth surface to work with.

The next stage is to apply your majolica glaze to the piece, applying it both thickly and evenly. The reason for this type of application is, if you are keeping with the traditional method and using a red earthenware, then you don't want it to show through the thin, white majolica glaze. Majolica is commonly best applied to round pieces, like plates and bowls, as due to the thinner consistency, it does not hold as well on sharper angles and corners. Majolica pieces are traditionally highly decorated and most potters use a soft pencil to draw their design onto their bisque fired piece, before adding on their colorful glazes to the white background. 

Pronunciation: may-JOL-ee-kay or may-YOL-ee-kay

Also Known As: Faience and delft are terms for very similar types of pottery, the only real difference being where it was produced and the style of the painting.

Alternate Spellings: maiolica

Examples: Majolica is often ascribed to have a delicate but strongly-colored and relaxed ambiance.

Resources: The Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques, Hamer and Hamer; 2004.
Ten Thousand Years of Pottery, Cooper; 2000.