This shallow maiolica bowl was originally a tazza on a raised foot. It is an example of istoriato maiolica (that is, its image tells a story). The story here remains a puzzle, but the wide range of rich colours and detailed figures make it a sophisticated piece.
The scene appears to feature a woman tied to a tree. By her side is a mysterious cloaked figure and before her are two figures who may be chasing each other. The plate was sold in 1859 as part of the collection of A. R. de Montferrand. A copy of brief details about this dish from the sale catalogue (also at the Holburne, museum no L627) are pasted to its underside: ‘A tazza, with Myrrha changed into a tree – 10½ in. diameter’. Myrrha’s tale appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the collection of classical tales that inspired many maiolica istoriato scenes. Myrrha falls in love with her own father, escapes his shamed anger and, while pregnant, is turned by the gods into a myrrh tree. This does not appear to tally with the painted scene, although liberties were often taken with subject-matter and a symbolic approach was often used.
Another suggested source is the tale of Apollo and Daphne, also from Metamorphoses. Apollo pursues Daphne but her wish for modesty results in the gods turning her into a laurel tree. The central figure could symbolise this transformation, while the foreground figures may represent Apollo (right) chasing Daphne (left). The torso of the left-hand figure looks male, but many istoriato bodies are often quite androngenous. The crouching figure may represent Ovid, whose tale is being told. During the Renaissance poets were often depicted as cloaked figures wearing laurel wreaths, as shown here.
Apollo and Daphne was a very popular subject for istoriato painters. A similar dish, created for Isabella d’Este, is in the British Museum. However, most depictions show her actual transformation into a tree. Showing more than one episode of a story within the same image (often called ‘polyscenic narrative’), as the Apollo and Daphne idea suggests, was not unusual in Renaissance painting or maiolica. Perhaps the plate expresses the familiar Renaissance theme of being bound and tortured by love. Delivering a moral message, and warning women of their duty to be chaste, was also important to art of the time. Intellectual game-playing was equally popular and so the subject may have been made intentionally puzzling. Later Renaissance artists took greater liberties with stock subjects and poses as the idea of a more creative artist gained ground. However, repeating the same subjects and poses, often copied from prints, remained a major habit among maiolica artists. The pose of the figure on the right appears on many istoriato plates (such as one depicting Arethusa and Alpheus, Urbino, 1540, from the Salomon Stodel collection, London). The plate could also feature a tale inspired by contemporary literature, such as that of Boccaccio or Petrarch.
The accomplished detail and broad colour-range suggest mid-sixteenth-century work from Urbino, with the coloration and foreground foliage similar to those in the Holburne’s maiolica plate C10, by Francesco Durantino of Urbino. The bodies feature strong outlines, closely observed musculature and careful modelling with shade and highlights. This is reminiscent of ‘high’ Renaissance art such as Michelangelo and ideas of the time about disegno (strong drawing skills and also a strong overall design). In some ways, the style is slightly looser than that of many Urbino workshops, which may indicate a Pesaro location. Like a painting of the time, there is a clear attempt to indicate foreground, middle ground and distance, suggesting recession via a narrowing pathway, angled buildings and blue colouration. Unlike some sophisticated maiolica, there is no decorative element beyond the upper surface. The curved sides simply have a mottled blue and cream glazing that extends some way underneath the dish.
This was probably once a tazza – a dish raised on a stem or foot – but its stem is now lost. The puzzling subject matter may tell the tale of Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo’s amorous pursuit. The foreground figures could be Apollo (right) chasing Daphne (left), with her appearing again in the centre – including several episodes in one scene was not unusual at the time. The crouching figure could be Ovid, as poets were often shown wearing cloaks and wreaths of laurel leaves. Daphne is not tied to a tree in Ovid, but subjects were often depicted symbolically. This plate may express ideas about chastity or being bound and tortured by love, or offer the kind of intellectual puzzle popular at the time.
The rich, varied colours and detail make this a sophisticated istoriato piece that looks like work from Urbino or Pesaro. It has similarities to another maiolica piece in the Holburne (C10), but its bodies are more strongly modelled, reminiscent of artists such as Michelangelo.