| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
| link to a Google search page HERE
main index © Jeff Matthews entry June 2011
Majolica decorative tile in the
courtyard of S. Chiara
neither a history of ceramics nor a treatise on
how they are produced. I imagine, however, that
at least some readers share my own confusion
about certain terms such as ceramic, terra cotta,
majolica, china, porcelain, etc., so I offer a
few definitions here below as an introduction to
the story of the Royal Porcelain Factory of
If you start with clay and make a pot and bake it to make it brittle and water-resistant, you get a type of earthenware known as terra cotta (Italian for 'baked earth'). If you fire the product at a higher temperature, the result is called stoneware or ceramic. Still higher temperatures and denser mixtures with kaolin (a clay mineral named for a place in China where it was first used) in the basic material produce porcelain, considered the highest quality of ceramic. Fired clay products may be glazed such that the surface will hold painted decorations. Obviously, the nature of the finished product depends on the variety of clay used, the temperature it is fired at, and how it is glazed. These vary greatly around the world, but geographical eponyms for ceramic products, especially types of porcelain, are well known; they include China, Meissen (or Dresden), Sevres, Limoges, and our own Capodimonte.
[note: the etymology of the word "porcelain" is uncertain. The first use in English is from the mid-1500s; it might be a diminutive of porcella, the cockel or mussel shells decorated by painters and which the new ceramics were said to resemble, especially in the delicate translucence of both.]
ceramic is also named for a place—the island of
Majorca, a major port where ships stopped on
their way to Italy in the Middle Ages. They
carried Hispano-Moresque majolica ceramic wares,
typically glazed with tin-oxide enamels and
fired at relatively low temperatures, then
colorfully decorated. That particular process
seems to have been invented by the Arabs and
then introduced into Sicily when they conquered
the island in the ninth century.
There are many examples in Naples of decorative majolica (maiolica in Italian). Two well-known artistic examples are the majolica courtyard of the church of Santa Chiara (see link and top photo) and the Garden of Eden floor mosaic in the Church of San Michele in the town of Anacapri on the island of Capri. There are, as well, countless other examples in Naples of majolica as decorative tiles, wall and floor murals, church domes, and statues and figurines used for serious settings in churches and Christmas manger scenes as well as for mundane uses such as apothecary jars and in restaurants and private homes. Important centers of local majolica production in Renaissance Italy were Orvieto, Florence, Bologna, and Faenza (among others in central Italy), Palermo and Caltagirone in Sicily, and a number of localities in Campania near Naples. (Faenza has also given us the synonym, faience, for majolica.) Some of the Italian production was so prized that Arab merchants bought it for their markets in the eastern Mediterranean.
Both majolica and porcelain were produced at the Royal Porcelain Factory on the Capodimonte hill in Naples, the site of one of the Bourbon Royal Palaces (photo, right) in the 1700s. In 1739 Charles III of Bourbon, the new king of the new kingdom of Naples, followed the example of Royal Courts elsewhere in Europe and set up a porcelain factory. (This may have to do with the fact that Charles had just married Maria Amalia, granddaughter of Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and founder of the porcelain factory in Meissen in 1710. "You know, Charles, granddad had a great idea!") The factory was first housed in the Royal Palace, where the artisans spent a few years researching suitable clays, mixtures and glazes. (They found kaolin deposits near Catanzaro down south and started production.) Officially, porcelain manufacture started in 1743, and the production facility was relocated to the Royal Wood of Capodimonte.