The Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli and the Revival of Italian Maiolica

Of the various revivals of interest in earlier periods that influenced the decorative arts in France, Britain, and America in the second half of the nineteenth century, the highly refined furniture and objects of the eighteenth century received the greatest attention in the wider market. But with the rise of Aestheticism in the 1860s and the Arts and Crafts movement from around 1880, attention from some quarters turned to earlier decorative arts that was variously of more artistic, humble, or craft-based origin.

One such area of renewed interest was in ceramic traditions pre-dating the advent of porcelain manufacture in Europe in the early eighteenth century, mostly in different types of tin-glazed earthenware. In early sixteenth century Italy, where such ware was known as maiolica, the influence of Renaissance narrative painting had led to increasingly sophisticated decoration on larger objects, such as chargers and storage jars. The most finely and elaborately decorated were those in the new istoriato style, so called for their colourful decoration with ‘stories’, narrative scenes of mythological, historical, or Biblical subjects with decorative borders of Classical motifs and other designs. For two centuries maiolica of this quality enjoyed high status but this declined with the increasing availability of European-made porcelain through the eighteenth century, relegating maiolica to the provinces, where it remained until the late nineteenth century revival of interest.  

A fine large tin-glazed earthenware panel by Cantagalli, manifattura Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli, Florence, circa 1890. $10,000-15,000

The Italian firm that most successfully profited from this revival of interest, and made the highest quality wares to meet it, was that headed by Ulisse Cantagalli (1839–1901). Based at Impruneta outside Florence, the Cantagalli family had been prosperous merchant ceramic makers for generations but fell on difficult times in Ulisse’s childhood. Having struggled on, in 1878 the business passed to Ulisse and his brother, who re-established it, renamed in their father’s honour as the Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli, upon Ulisse’s determination and vision to revive the production of high-quality glazed earthenware, not only the styles of the best sixteenth century Italian maiolica but also Hispano-Moresque lustre ware and the wares produced at Iznik and elsewhere in the Ottoman world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the techniques of all of which Ulisse carefully studied and recreated in his factory.

Benozzo Gozzoli. Journey of the Magi, 1459. Fresco, tempera, and oil. Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence.

Ulisse’s timing was perfect: the English and American market for art pottery was booming, propelled first by Aestheticism’s taste for the artistic and exotic followed by the Arts and Crafts movement’s interest in traditional crafts. With this, and the large number of cultivated English and American tourists visiting Italy, Cantagalli thrived, opening outlets in Florence and Rome. Ulisse was as talented in capitalising on this interest and promoting his business as he was on its artistic side, especially in cultivating commercially advantageous relationships with influential taste-makers such as John Ruskin, William Morris, Liberty & Co., and most fruitfully with William de Morgan, the leading Arts and Crafts ceramicist, with whom he collaborated artistically. A glowing account of the Cantagalli business appeared in the New York Times in 1879. Following their marriage in 1880, Ulisse was joined in the business by his Scottish wife, Margaret Tod, who managed relations with British customers (and, after Ulisse’s death, successfully ran the business until 1934). With prize-winning success at international fairs in the 1880s and ‘90s, Cantagalli pieces entered important public and private collections.

All of the ingredients that made the Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli so successful are well represented in a superb, large three-tile panel by the firm to be offered in Leonard Joel’s April Decorative Arts auction. Dating to around 1890 and finely decorated in a manner based on the istoriato style with a scene adapted from Benozzo Gozzoli’s 1459 fresco Journey of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, the panel remains in its original sixteenth century-style frame. Typical of Cantagalli’s clientele, it was acquired, probably when new, by a member of a wealthy Scottish family and has remained with his descendants until now. 

The Decorative Arts Auction will take place on Monday 29 April in Melbourne. For viewing times and to see the full catalogue please visit our website.

By David Parsons, Head of Private Estates and Valuations, Decorative Arts Specialist

Top Image (detail): A fine large tin-glazed earthenware panel by Cantagalli, manifattura Figli di Giuseppe Cantagalli, Florence, circa 1890. $10,000-15,000

April 2024