Fresco and painting on majolica in Liguria
admin 24 February 2016
Maioliche e Porcellane da Collezione / Asta 256


In the survey on the relationship between the painting in fresco and historiated decoration of Liguria majolicas, in order not to merely repeat the concepts expressed in detail on other occasions1, it was decided to propose four examples, three concrete and the fourth theoretical, in which a connection between the two species of painting and the awareness of the decorator in using them is taken into consideration.

PLATE Savona, late 17th century majolica Arenzano, Gerolamo Patrone collection

The first case concerns a plate, probably from Savona, diameter 44 cm; with no mark, its polychrome decoration offers a remarkable taste of “baroque setting”2, appealing to different aspects (Fig. 1). The comparison with the iconographic source allows us to understand the attitude of the painter on the model itself and reveals, in the amplitude of figurative concept, the ability to interpret it according to the aesthetic values of a changed artistic climate (fig. 2). Signs of a style independence in painting the figures are also evident: therefore the object deserves a special consideration for the quality of the drawing of some of them, although it may be understood in various ways, among the elements of a specific group of Ligurian majolicas, the historiated ones by copying the carvings illustrating the Genoese editions of the Gerusalemme Liberata3. Here is the text published in 1617, in particular of the graphic kit for the VIII chant. The scene represents the moment in which Aliprando refers to Godfrey of Bouillon, with Peter the Hermit, of having found near a stream during a raid the lifeless body of a warrior, without head and right hand, wearing the bloody weapons belonging to Rinaldo, thus apparently truthful proof of his death.

camillo-cungio-gerusalemme-liberata, canto-viii
Fig. 2 Camillo Cungio GERUSALEMME LIBERATA, CANTO VIII Genoa, 1617 engraving

The absence of any explanatory inscription reserves the understanding of the fact, only to those who know the plot of the poem, if you do not want to think of a series of majolicas in which the origin and location of the episode was clear. However the lack of this kind of epigraphic inserts is a constant of the Ligurian historiated production of the seventeenth century, far from the didactic zeal of the sixteenth century historiated production. Its way of being is primarily aesthetic and finds the most immediate and intimate expression referenced in the fresco decoration, for the reasons that have been frequently discussed in details. It suffices to note the impulse to transcend the simplistic terms of a limited space, a trend noticeable in arranging the figures of the two warriors and weapons found occupying parts of the brim.
The same function assigned to the figures of warriors, and the horizontal span of the front of the figuration, for example appears in a fresco (fig. 3), Choice of Esther by Ahasuerus, painted on the ceiling of the second noble floor hall of the palace of Giacomo Lomellini, in Genoa. The reference to the patrician residence changes its simply demonstrative character regarding the topic of the investigation, thanks to the warrior visible on the brim of the dish, right, up and next , in the act of turning on the right showing the back. The figure resembles that of the soldier, placed in similar position with respect to the whole, made visible in the fresco on the ceiling of a living room in Lomellini palace, located on the same floor of the hall (Fig. 4). The subject, “Ester comforted by Ahasuerus”, originated with the whole cycle of frescoes from the novel La reina Esther, published in Genoa by Ansaldo Ceba in 1615; the frescoes have been variously dated between 1616 and 16304. Partially comparing the two figures seems possible even though there are no know graphic translations of the painting5.

Domenico Fiasella o Giovanni Carlone-Ester-confortata-da-Assueroweb
Fig. 4 Domenico Fiasella or Giovanni Carlone ESTER COMFORTED BY AHASUERUS 1620s or 1630s fresco Genoa, Palazzo Lomellini (Territorial Military Command)

Apart from the research on the use and origin of the figures, if to the concept of space expressed in historiating majolica , different and wider in comparison to the graphic model of the verses of Torquato Tasso, we associates the rhetorical amplification introduced in the gestures of some characters, and the resulting pathos vein , aesthetic outcomes appear definitely related to the aulic purposes of fresco painters of the Baroque age.

It is worth then considering the substantial Genoese contribution to the iconography of the Liberata, we referred to. In fact Bernardo Castello, established painter and influential person in the local assembly of the arts, not only provided the designs for three different sets of carvings that accompany the poem printed in Genoa, but included Tasso’s characters in his repertoire of fresco painter and repeated on plaster the figures of those designs, adopting their formal typology also in representing different stories than those told by Tasso.
So decorators, in painting the images of Liberata on majolica surface using the composition of the fresco concepts, while continuing an iconographic tradition, stress the similarities inherent in the materials used: it is declared by the quality of the surfaces, the similarity of the working method and of the artistic results. The similarity of the surfaces is gathered in their difficulty of use: necessarily wet the first, dry and ready to rise in a cloud of dust the second; both enemy of any error, absorbing as they are; both willing to accept the colours but reluctant to show their true aspects, until the air dries the plaster, fixing the colours, or the fire changes the mineral nature of a thin and unstable layer in the steadfastness of enamels adhering to earthenware. Regarding the manner of work, revealing the kind of results obtained, it is known that fresco painters and painters of majolica use “cartons” and “dusting” to transfer the figures on the surface to historiate.
As for the mentioned pictorial values of the plate decoration, it must be said that the style of the main figures put them, at least at the level of hypotheses, as part of activities of the Guidobono and places the majolica in the second half of the seventeenth century, with an inductive preference for its latest quarter.

Fig. 3, Domenico Fiasella o Giovanni Carlone, SCELTA DI ESTHER DA PARTE DI ASSUERO, econdo o terzo decennio XVII secolo affresco Genova, palazzo Lomellini
Fig. 3 Domenico Fiasella or Giovanni Carlone CHOICE OF ESTER FROM AHASUERUS 1620s or 1630s fresco, Genoa, Palazzo Lomellini, (Territorial Military Command)

The second object, capable as the other one to highlight relations otherwise only alleged, is a plate from Savona, diameter 38.5 cm, historiated “with baroque setting” in monochrome blue on green color with a typical and almost imperceptible shade of blue (Figs. 5-6). The brand Coat of Savona suggests its origin, the aesthetic character of the decoration ascribe it in last quarter of the seventeenth century. The subject refers to the myth of Perseus, representing the hero a few moments after having killed Medusa, the instant of the birth of Pegasus from freshly spilled blood. From heaven Jupiter and Mercury are looking at the scene; behind them you can see the face of a third person, but the absence of significant details does not allow establishing his precise identity. However, the presence of the little picture at that point on the surface is a further degree of depth in the figuration.

The iconographic source of the subject has obvious ties, almost identical, with a work by Gio. Andrea Ansaldo that can be dated back to the 1620s6: the fresco of the central panel of the vault in a room in villa Spinola di San Pietro, once a suburban residence situated in San Pier d’Arena, immediately west of Genoa (fig. 7). The structural elements of the two figures match, but no incision is known reproducing this fresco, nor the others performed by the same artist in different rooms of the house to tell the various episodes of the myth. The recurrence of the condition supports the hypothesis that the decorator of majolica could benefit from more direct means of knowledge of the artistic production, i.e. sketches, drawings, copies: the relationships of familiarity or fellowship with painters, from Savona or Genoese , sometimes reported by archival documents, opened an access to that heritage7.
Clear evidence of the relationship between the two paintings is provided by the poetic text from which Ansaldo was inspired. In fact, the hexameters of Ovid were not transferred into images, but the hendecasyllables by Gio. Andrea dell’Anguillara, author of a successful and somewhat free Italian version of the Metamorphoses published in 15618. The detail that explains better the link with the notable changes introduced concerns Pegasus. In the verses by Ovid the winged horse comes from the blood of the Gorgon together with Crisaore (the hero of “the golden sword”) and flies away immediately indomitable. Anguillara instead ignores Crisaore and turns Pegasus in Perseus’ horse, riding which the protagonist will save Andromeda by killing the sea monster sent to devour her. The fresco and the decoration of the majolica show Pegasus like a steed, saddled with all the trappings, including bit and bridle.

Fig. 5. PLATE, Savona, late 17th century, majolica, Savona, private collection. Rear surface of the plate with mark Savona coat of arms

The entire cycle of frescoes by Gio. Andrea and the historiated decoration are therefore the first recognized traces, certainly not the only ones, of the use of an alternative literary source, easily available, generous with new narrative details9; the discovery therefore induces the verification of topics related to the myth of Perseus (and the Metamorphosis in general) to see which of the two texts is used as an iconographic reference. The decoration of the plate still has some important differences from the fresco: painting style, conception of space, narrative tone are different than those proposed by Ansaldo.
One note. If the succession of hills pervades the background, and the gods which protrude from the clouds to observe the events impose on the scene, the result is the effect of moving towards the spectator the place where the characters act. Moreover Pegasus leaps forward with momentum turning almost facing the spectator. Medusa’s head rolls to the edge of the brim and does not necessarily stop there. Figuration tends to cross the boundary established , he wants to engage in the story the real existence. In the fresco instead it claims to be distant: Pegasus flies away focusing strongly beyond the frame of the picture, this can be easily understood looking at the detail of the left front hoof, hidden by the illusory barrier.

The new set of dynamic lines according to which the figures move and perform acts in the environment created by the perspective, be it the result of skill or craft concept, belongs to the Baroque aesthetics and differs from the late Mannerist still evident in the figures of Ansaldo. Not even the figures by the “Painter of the Perseus'” can therefore be considered the simple copy of a graphic model, instead, they show, like the protagonists of Liberata, the autonomy of the author’s judgment, also revealing a close relationship with the discipline of fresco: to that kind of painting, to its dialectic contamination with reality, are in fact to be reported the countryside and the act of the myth characters represented on the ceramic surface. The majolicas painter thus implements major aesthetic changes, such as to fully insert his work in the contemporary art trail. The most valid way to obtain the purpose is provided by the affinity between paint on fresh and on majolica, detectable both in the similitude of the surface materials, and their pitfalls, and in the use of the same compositional concepts, able to make coexist by means of the decoration different figurative genres: from the figures of the subjects of sacred or profane history, mythological, allegorical, to the representation of various elements of the three kingdoms of nature.

Fig. 7. Gio. Andrea Ansaldo PERSEUS KILLING MEDUSA. 1830s, fresco, San Pier d’Arena, villa Spinola di San Pietro

Those concepts are useful, inter alia, to make harmless the formal variety of the spaces, in itself hostile to the easy understanding of the subjects painted. Until now we discussed about similar aesthetic results. Of course the decisive factor of the similarity would look even better, fully revealing its cultural acquisition character, if the the historiated decoration was that of a vase. It would be clear the aforementioned advantage of enjoying of the speech drafting criteria for images typical of the fresco, capable of healing with their ductility the narrative ruptures imposed by the complex shape of the surfaces to be painted. Origin of the impediments are the curvature of vault or the amplitude of the ceiling, mouldings of the cornices, the object of the decorations in relief, in the round, sculptured; the compartments of doors and windows, their jambs and lintels, their frames, whether it is a wall; the need to combine the ceiling decoration with that of the walls when the fresco covers the entire room.
It is easy to see that the curved development of the containers poses very similar problems to the painters of majolicas. It must be emphasized the incidence of similar obstacles: the functional elements (loops), plastic reliefs of various kinds (masks, hems, seams), restricted areas (epigraphic scrolls, mouldings of the surface), and finally the fragmentation of visual continuity of the iconography, reassembled only by turning the object on itself (in the case of the fresco is the observer to have to move in order to have the complete picture).

Exactly the third example of the series facilitate the verification of a good part of the foregoing considerations. It is a vase for scented essences, 46 cm high , to be dated in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, ascribable in terms of morphology and overall appearance to Savona production, although off-label (figures 8-9). Its historiated decoration has the gift, about the general topic discussed, not to be at the levels of masterpieces , representing instead the normal aesthetic quality deemed necessary for a high cost product, performed through the use of the distinctive figurative culture common in Liguria manufactures. Besides the refined complexity of volumes and of the profile, the richness of the historiated decoration, the exuberant plastic metamorphosis of the handles and the masks, to the baroque aesthetic qualities of the vase it is necessary to add the completeness of the form, guaranteed by the presence of the perforated cover (hemispherical, equipped of taut and tapered cylindrical knob), the most suitable proof to determine the use of the container as a container for perfumed essences.
The numerous figures that decorate entirely the surface , including the cover, come from the literary heritage of mythology and should be included in the repertoire of the “baroque setting”, painted in monochrome blue on a usual light green bottom.
It is even superfluous to note the consistency of their iconographic typologies , the expertise in the way of using them, compared to figurative canons of fresco painting. It is enough to observe the ease in occupying the small size, however, prominent on the vacuum; or the ability to create with the arrangement the fictitious depth of the landscape they occupy; or finally only assessing in some of them the attention towards the perspective, seeing them arranged to look towards a space and imaginary users located far below.

Fig. 8-9. VASE FOR SCENTED ESSENCES, Savona or Albisola, late 17th century, majolica, Panzano collection, Genoa. Opposite surface of the vase


Therefore the painter of Italian majolicas not only uses the appropriate technical skills, the tool to manoeuvre among the difficulties of a surface materially similar to the plaster of the frescoes, but it also conveys the aesthetic values that are distinctive of the territorial artistic culture to which it belongs.
Decisive detail: he does not complete the work by transferring on the surface by means of “dusting” the contours of famous pictorial texts, his is not the work of a mere copyist, a miniaturist; instead he paints on the future earthenware – and get different results according to his skills – choosing often anonymous figurative fragments, suitable to communicate, the pictorial spirit of the huge fresco.

It remains to consider the theoretical example, the fourth and last of the series, tied to the developments of the previous reflections. And in fact recognizing the active membership of the decorators to the ways of composing the fresco painting also allows us to explain an apparent anomaly, namely the presence of the subject of higher pictorial census on the rear surface of a vase, the part without doubt less able to enhance it.
The apothecary jars are the most suitable objects to provide reasons to discuss the topic, because they have to be placed on the shelves in order to offer a glimpse of the established part of the surface, the one where the scroll with the words that identifies the medicine contained in the receptacle can be found. No other case results in a clear-cut use value difference between the two parts of the surface, yet the subject worthy of the greater artistic effort ranks right at the belittled. In any case there are not many Liguria pharmaceutical containers, assignable to the second half of the seventeenth century, presenting it without figures, and often these figures turn out to be the most remarkable of the whole.
Well-known typology of pharmaceutical vases, the “Stagnoni”, that is, large containers for medicinal waters (figs. 10-11), can answer the question as long as you observe their decoration recalling the rules of composition of the fresco11.

Fig. 10 – 11. PHARMACEUTICAL STAGNONE, Savona, late 17th century-early 18th century majolica, no mark. Savona, private collection. Rear surface of the stagnone

The surface of the Stagnone represents the complete catalogue of the difficulties challenging the work of the decorator. Apply the grammar of the fresco, in painting the figures on a surface full of conditions in the front of the jar , allows you to bring to unity of thought fragments of the speech. If the precepts put into practice concern the accessory decoration and not the main subject, the conscious use of the figurative model suggests the painter’s desire to carry forward the project that he shows to master: to accomplish it he uses the large space of the rear surface , free from any kind of impediment, suited to host figures comparable in importance to the subject of a fresco. On the other hand, still passing by metaphor from grammar to syntax, the introductory meaning of the figures on the front surface creates in the contemporary observer, partaker of the same culture of the image, the certainty not to look at the finished work, and leads him to seek the explicit outcome of the skill of the painter in the hidden surface. It is reasonable to think that he would be disappointed if it was impossible for him to find them , for sure he would take a negative judgment about the artistic quality majolica object.
It should be noted that the interest in verifying the completeness of the project is more valuable than the possible beauty of the figures painted on the back surface of the jar. In fact having acquired the compositional patterns of the fresco, and in inducing the use by the observers puts that part of surface in the whole of the historiated decoration, providing painting on majolica with terms and spaces adequate to express the beauty of the Baroque sentiments. Of course, the relations with the fresco art exist even before the mid-seventeenth century (the fundamental reasons for the relationship are the same), it only changes the way to manifest them for the simple reason that during the course of the century the expressive needs gradually changed.
The apothecary jars, especially the Stagnoni also have a precise role in defining the quality of the connections between the fresco and the painting on majolica. The historiated decoration of a vase for scented essences, or suitable for containing flowers, even extended to the entire surface, if you want to be captious does not represent the proof of the application of the compositional concepts the fresco. It is not so, but you could derive the fact from simple convenience, since there are no existing function that favors one part of the surface over the other, leave one without figures would prevent exposing them to the view or would advise against placing the jar where they can both be seen. The part of the surface of apothecary jars free from the presence of the epigraphic scroll can instead do without the figures: few people will see it, confined as they are in a dutifully neglected part. On the contrary, not only that surface is historiated, but there are painting of figures that frequently illustrate the valor of the painter, then a sure sign of consideration towards the conceptual aspects of the fresco and a clue of the appeal of its artistic prestige.


Carlo Raffo



1 On the matter see C. Raffo, Note per un’estetica della maiolica ligure. Maioliche albisolesi del XVII secolo. Gerolamo Merega, in “CeramicAntica”, n. 122, January 2002, pp. 24-49; Id., Maioliche liguri del XVII e XVIII secolo. Pittori su maiolica e decorazione a fresco, in Maioliche. Auction 49, catalogue, Cambi Casa d’Aste, May 2005, pp. 8-11, notes 559-612, in particular the notes 565, 582, 584, 598; Id., Identità della maiolica ligure di età barocca. I pittori, l’iconografia, il tema dei guerrieri a cavallo, in Auction 100, catalogue, Cambi Casa d’Aste, october 2010, pp. 118-123. Errata corrige: the date of the last of the four known purchases of Ligurian majolicas made by the Medici should be read 1686 and not i1680 as written in the text (Cambi Casa d’Aste, 2010, p. 119, right column, line 32).

2 For the origin of the term and the proposal to use it see P G. Farris, A. Storme, Ceramica e farmacia di San Salvatore a Gerusalemme, Genoa 1982, pp. 91-92, note 352.

3 For what concerns this iconographic source see G. Farris, C. Raffo, Antiche maioliche liguri, in “Arte Viva Fimantiquari”, n. 5, 1994, pp. 60-64; Iid., Ceramiche del Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica, in “Quaderni del Museo Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti”, n. 21, 1996, p. 9, note 4; Carlo Raffo, Pitture su ceramica in Liguria, in “CeramicAntica”, n. 9, 1993, pp. 32-48; Id., Pittura su ceramica in Liguria, in “Arte Viva Fimantiquari”, n. 6, 1995, pp. 72-75; Id., Elementi per un catalogo dei pittori ceramici liguri, in “Arte Viva Fimantiquari”, n. 10-11, 1997, pp. 82-94.
The poem was printed in Genoa in the 1590, 1604, 1615 (same edition of the previous one), 1617. To each of the three different editions corresponds its own set of images. The historiated plate mentioned is included in C. Chilosi (edited by), Ceramiche della tradizione ligure. Thesaurus di opere dal Medio Evo al primo Novecento, Cinisello Balsamo 2011, p. 127, note 139.

4 P. Donati, Le storie di Ester, in E. Poleggi (edited by), Palazzo Lomellini Patrone, Genoa 1995, pp. 90-91, 96, fig. 60. Scholars do not agree on the time of the frescoes of Palazzo Lomellini: Ezia Gavazza between 1625 and 1630; Franco Renzo Pesenti sets the beginning in 1619 and considers it finished before 1621; Piero Donati considers 1620 and 1625 or more or less this date. Patrizia Marica, L’architettura del Palazzo seicentesco e la cultura abitativa, in Palazzo Lomellini, cit., pp. 24-25, considering the results of the studies and of the archival research available sets the beginning of the construction of the building “not before august 1619” and ends them “in the years 1622-1623”; according to her, the frescoes were painted “around 1623-1625”. Recognised author of the frescoes Domenico Fiasella, apart from two of them, ascribed from Donati to Giovanni Carlone (P. Donati, Le storie di Ester, cit., pp. 90-91, fig. 60, 96, fig. 65).

5 Another possible iconographic source _ consists of a drawing by Giovanni Battista Castello the Bergamasco. It is the preparatory sheet for the fresco representing The vocation of Matthew, painting made between 1557 and 1561 on the vault of the central nave of the Genoese church of the aristocratic family D’Oria. The male figure placed right near the edge of the figuration, both on the paper and on the plaster, appears comparable with the figure of the warrior on painted on the majolica this time, however, only with respect to the head, chest and left arm.
See L. Magnani (edited by), Luca Cambiaso da Genova all’Escorial, Genova 1995, pp. 105, 107, fig. 13, 109, fig. 15; P. Boccardo, C. Di Fabio, L’attività di Giovanni Battista Castello il Bergamasco a Genova: un artista e la sua cultura tra Roma e Fontainebleau, in AA.VV., Luca Cambiaso, un maestro del Cinquecento europeo, catalogue of the exhibition, Genova 2007, pp. 93, note 47, 95, fig. 10, 109; P. Boccardo, III. Luca Cambiaso e i genovesi del suo tempo. Disegni, in AA.VV., Luca Cambiaso, un maestro, cit., pp. 372-373, note 17.
The same goes for a fresco painted by Gio. Andrea Ansaldo in villa Spinola di San Pietro in San Pier d’Arena. The subject shows the capture of the city of Jülich by Ambrogio Spinola, an engagement happened in 1622 during the campaign in Flanders against the Dutch from the crown of Spain, reigning Philip IV of Habsburg. The figure of the warrior to the right, in contact with the inner rim of the fake relief frame, has a posture similar to those of the already mentioned figures. The work is placed in the first half of the 1620s.
See Catalogo ragionato dei dipinti a fresco, in M. Priarone, Andrea Ansaldo. 1584-1638, cat. VI, Genoa 2011, pp. 286-287.
The position of the legs does not match any of the aforementioned figures with respect to the common benchmark visible on the majolica : all those useful comparison show in full evidence only the left leg, at least consistent in form and posture with the same limb of the copy: the drawing of the right leg of the warrior seems to be an invention of the majolicas painter (it is also necessary to consider the partial restoration suffered from the figure). The turn of the head, the movement of the bust and the arrangement of the left arm along the body are more similar in the first place to the figure painted by Giovanni Carlone and then to one designed by Giovanni Battista Castello. Reported these affinities, it should be noted that the whole pictorial production by Bernardo Castello, plentiful in warlike subjects, there might perhaps be a figure recognizable as a direct source of the figure in question, it might be considered the brave glimpse, unusual in the figures painted by Bernardo in similar positions. These frescoes were published only in a small number, merely almost always reproducing the main part of the painting. It therefore becomes impossible to verify in a short time if the hypothesis has foundation.

6 E. Gavazza, La grande decorazione a Genova, Genova 1974, pp. 210, fig. 208, 227, fig. 225; M. Priarone, Andrea Ansaldo, cit., pp. 286, 292-299. As for the frescoes by Ansaldo in villa Spinola di San Pietro there are different opinions on their date: a little before the last months of1622 (Pesenti 1986), around 1625 (Gavazza 1974), in the first half of the 1620s (Priarone 2011).

7 C. Varaldo, Contributo alla conoscenza di Giovanni Battista Croce, in “Atti e memorie”, journal of the Società Savonese di Storia Patria, n.s, vol. IV, Savona 1970-1971, p. 292, nota+e 8; Id., Note sui Guidobono a Savona, in AA.VV., Atti del III convegno internazionale della ceramica, Albisola 1970, pp. 225-237, in particular pp. 231, 236, doc. 17, 237, doc. 18; Id., I Ghirardi ceramisti savonesi, note storiche, in AA.VV., Atti del X convegno internazionale della ceramica, Albisola 1977, pp. 189-195.

8 Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Reduced by Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara in eighth rhyme, In Venetia to Gio. Griffio. MDLXI. Consulted edition: Venice, Bernardo Giunti, 1584.

9 For more details concerning the different representation of the myth of Perseus by Ansaldo, see C. Raffo, Il Pittore del Perseo, in “Cambi Auction Magazine”, n. 1, 2011, pp. 18-24.
This plate too is inserted in the catalogue representing the Liguria tradition majolicas, cit., p. 129, note 142.

10 Witness in favour of Cipriano Piccolpasso’s thesis: “The painting of the vases is different from painting on the walls, since wall paiters are standing while the others sitting, nor it is possible to paint as it can be seen in the drawing…”; see I tre libri dell’arte del vasaio, around 1558, eedited by G. Vanzolini, Pesaro 1879, third book, p. 42. By denying the similarity, the author certifies a possible relationship between the two painting techniques, evidently supported by others. Considering the cause of negative judgment one might say, in a perhaps provocative way, that the only difference consists precisely in the position taken by the painters.

11 The stagnone is published in the catalogue Maioliche liguri del XVII e XVIII secolo, cit., pp. 45-47, note 598, concerning the majolicas sale which took place in May 2005 at the Genoese headquarters of Cambi Casa d’Aste (see note 1).