The porcelain made at the Medici workshops in Florence was the first to be produced in Europe. Francesco I de’Medici (1541–1587) established a ceramic workshop in the 1560s with the intention of imitation Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. It took approximately ten years of experimentation before the workshop could manufacture the type of porcelain known as soft-paste. While so-called Medici porcelain lacks the ingredients that comprise hard-paste porcelain as made by the Chinese the Medici potters were able to craft a fine white ceramic body with cobalt decoration that represented an outstanding technical achievement for its time. Technically difficult and expensive to make, Medici porcelain was produced in very small quantities, and manufacture is believed to have ceased, or at least significantly diminished with the death of Francesco in 1587. Only fifty-nine pieces of Medici porcelain are known to have survive, of which one-tenth reside in the Museum's collection.
The scene decorating the center of this dish represents King Saul committing suicide by falling on his sword. The composition, after an engraving by Hans Sebald Beham, is one of the most elaborate narrative scenese found on Medici porcelain. The dish is unique in being painted on the back with a grand ducal coronet, the six balls of the Medici coat of arms, and initials that appear to be those of Francesco I de'Medici.
Inscription: Paster: Annex 124
Marking: On back, at center: [coronet and six balls of the Medici arms]; on three topmost balls: F M M•; on remaining three balls: [illegible initials, perhaps E• D• II]
Notes on mark: probably F.M.M.E.D. II [Franciscus Medici Magnus Dux Etruriae Dux II, Francesco de' Medici Second Grand Duke of Tuscany]
[ Art market , Florence; to Foresi ] ; Alessandro Foresi , Florence ; Eugène Piot , Paris (until 1860; his sale, Hôtel des Commissaires-Priseurs, Paris, March 19, 1860, no. 83); Baron Gustave de Rothschild , Paris (by 1869–d. 1911) ; by descent, Baron Henri Lambert , Brussels (until d. 1933; to his widow, Johanna) ; Baroness Rothschild-Lambert , New York (1933–41; sale, Parke-Bernet, New York, March 7, 1941, no. 110; sold to MMA)