Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Italian Porcelain in the Eighteenth Century

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While a type of soft-paste porcelain had been made in Florence at the Medici workshops in the third quarter of the sixteenth century (17.190.2045), it was not until 1720 that porcelain was again produced in Italy on any significant scale. In that year, Francesco Vezzi established a porcelain factory in Venice. Vezzi had visited Vienna the previous year, and it is likely that he knew of Claudius Du Paquier's enterprise there. One of Du Paquier's assistants, Christoph Conrad Hunger, left Vienna after Vezzi's visit and moved to Venice, where, presumably, he provided the technical expertise for Vezzi's undertaking. The Vezzi factory, which produced hard-paste porcelain, was in operation for only seven years; many of the surviving pieces from the factory are teapots, which are often decorated in a chinoiserie style (06.362ab).


The next factory to be founded was at Doccia, near Florence, where in 1737 the Marchese Carlo Ginori began experiments with the manufacture of hard-paste porcelain. Like Vezzi, Ginori was aided by workers from the Du Paquier factory, and it seems that successful production began in about 1740. The following year, Ginori was granted an exclusive privilege to produce porcelain in Tuscany. Pieces produced in the 1740s often display a slightly gray and coarse porcelain body, and the painted decoration sometimes reflects the influence of Du Paquier porcelain (06.372a). Doccia began using a tin glaze in the 1760s that created an opaque, milky-white surface that masked the gray tone of the porcelain. In the same years, the painted decoration was often a stylized floral pattern known at the factory as a tulipano (1985.384.1,.2). The Doccia factory excelled in the production of porcelain sculpture. The factory's modelers, under the direction of the highly talented Gaspero Bruschi, created not only original models but also reproduced in porcelain—with great skill—Florentine bronzes of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (1997.377).


Shortly after Doccia began manufacturing porcelain, Charles VII, king of the Two Sicilies, instigated experiments with porcelain production on the grounds of the royal palace of Capodimonte outside of Naples. With the aid of the two arcanists Livio and Gaetano Schepers, the factory developed a formula for a distinctive soft-paste porcelain body that is characterized by a pronounced creamy color and an unusually glossy clear glaze. These qualities made Capodimonte soft paste a particularly successful medium for undecorated porcelain sculpture, as is evident in the figures of the Mourning Virgin and Saint John (1971.92.1,.2). The director of Capodimonte's sculpture workshop, Giuseppe Gricci, was one of the greatest of all eighteenth-century porcelain modelers, and his figures of street peddlers are among the finest of all European porcelain sculpture. For the figure of the pot seller (1982.450.4), Gricci has translated a print by the Italian artist Annibale Carracci into three dimensions, remaining faithful to the original print while adding a sense of dynamism and specific personality. In contrast to the figures of the Mourning Virgin and Saint John, much of Capodimonte's figural production was decorated with enamel painting, but this decoration tends to be sparingly applied, resulting in an effective balance between painted details and the undecorated, luminous porcelain body.


The commedia dell'arte—a type of improvisational street theater—provided a seemingly limitless source of subjects for both porcelain modelers and painters in the eighteenth century. One of its principal characters, Pulcinella, is immediately identifiable by his typical costume of a loose tunic, tall conical hat, and black mask with a prominent hooked nose. Three Pulcinellas traveling through a barren landscape decorate a Capodimonte jar of ca. 1750 (50.211.266), and Pulcinella's characteristic gluttony is reflected in a figure of ca. 1755–65 who is depicted eating spaghetti, with a hunk of Parmesan cheese, a grater, and a carafe of wine at his feet (50.211.264). It is not clear if this figure was produced at Capodimonte or at its successor factory of Buen Retiro. When Charles VII assumed the Spanish throne in 1759, he moved his porcelain factory, including workers and raw materials, to the Spanish palace of Buen Retiro outside of Madrid, thus closing the Capodimonte factory after a brief but distinguished sixteen-year history.

Jeffrey Munger
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art