Armorial dish: The story of Phaeton

Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo Italian

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 950

This plate formed part of one of the largest majolica services ever made, commissioned by Piero Maria Pucci (1467–1547), a member of a prominent Florentine family whose coat of arms features the head of a Black man in profile, a reference to their original surname, Saracini (meaning "Saracens"). Similar images had frequently appeared in European heraldry since the thirteenth century. Rooted in the subjugation of Muslims and peoples of Arab and African descent, this imagery often signified triumph in the Crusades or involvement in the slave trade. Here, a white band tied around the man’s head is inscribed with three T’s, an acronym for the Pucci family motto: Tempore tempora tempera (Time alleviates all troubles).

Thirty-seven pieces from the maiolica service survive (including four in the Lehman Collection: see also 1975.1.1131; 1975.1.1134; 1975.1.1137), all painted in Urbino by the celebrated maiolica painter Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo in 1532 and 1533. Some pieces were sent to Gubbio to be completed with luster decoration under Xanto’s direction.

The subject depicted here is the mythological story of Phaeton, a mortal youth, who fell to his death from the celestial chariot of his father, the sun-god Phoebus. This plate shows the aftermath, as Phaeton’s loved ones are literally transformed by their grief: at right, his sisters change into trees, and at left, his friend Cygnus becomes a swan. The figure of Cygnus, like several appearing in Xanto’s imagery, was adapted from a print source.

Armorial dish: The story of Phaeton, Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo (Italian, Rovigo ca.1487–1542), Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware)

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