Important Italian 'Istoriato' maiolica dish by Francesco Xanto Avelli. Urbino, dated 1537. Photo Lyon & Turnbull

EDINBURGH.- A rare and previously unrecorded plate by the important Maiolica artist Francesco Xanto Avelli, dated 1537, has been uncovered by Lyon & Turnbull auctioneers. The plate was discovered on a regular house valuation and is expected to realise over £100,000 at auction at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on the 7th December 2011. The plate is thought to have been purchased by the vendor’s family in Italy between 1894 and 1916.

Celia Curnow, ceramics consultant to Lyon & Turnbull said “I have waited more than thirty years to see a piece of this quality outside a museum.” In his 2007 exhibition held at London’s Wallace Collection devoted to Xanto, curator John Mallett, former Keeper of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London described Xanto as “Pottery-Painter, Poet, Man of the Italian Renaissance.”

Xanto Avelli was born in Italy, about 1486. Nothing at all is known of his origins, his education, or his early years; he was probably working in Urbino from 1522. Archival evidence records him as working in Urbino in 1530. 1530 is also the date on his earliest signed piece, a plate commemorating the coming New Year.

At around this time Xanto married a woman called Finalissa, also in Urbino. Over the following five years he produced a large body of work; each piece was signed in various manners, sometimes dated, signed and marked as a product of Urbino. Such consistency in signing his work was unusual at the time; there is some suggestion that the artist was blacklisted after the labour troubles of 1530, and that his choice to sign his works might be in some way related to his difficulties.

The front of the plate is decorated with a scene from the Life of Cyrus and shows Cyrus persuading the people of Persepolis to rise up against their Median rulers. Celia Curnow continued “ It is incredible that the colours on the plate are as vibrant today as when the plate was first seen in 1537 – the reverse of the plate is as revealing as the front as it is fully inscribed by the artist and carries labels inscribed by previous owners of the plate over the years.”

Mailoica is earthenware, made on a wheel or by the use of plaster moulds and fired to the “biscuit” or unglazed stage at approximately 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting form is then covered with a coat of tin glaze. Later, when this has dried, the white surface can be painted using metallic pigments, for example blue from cobalt, green from copper, yellow from iron and brown from manganese. A final clear glaze is added and the piece is then fired a second time at 950 degrees centigrade.

The interaction of the water which remained in the biscuit form, the opaque lead glaze and the final metal oxide glazes interact in the kiln to create the deep and brilliant translucent color specific to majolica. It is this glaze, the tremendous variety of whimsical forms, and the intense colors of majolica that make this ceramic stand apart from other wares and delight collectors.





Important Italian 'Istoriato' maiolica dish by Francesco Xanto Avelli. Urbino, dated 1537. Photo Lyon & Turnbull

previously unrecorded, painted in strong brilliant colours, the front decorated with a scene from the Life of Cyrus - Cyrus persuading the people of Persepolis to rise up against their Median rulers with the inscribed words 'Quá vobis vitá pr(?)teritá superioris diei an presentum eligitis?' In the centre armed soldiers listen to Cyrus, the remains of a feast on a table to the right, on the far left the figures of Sœbaris and Harpagus, watching through an upper window above, the wives and daughters of the Persian army, with a hovering winged female figure holding an orb and an inverted trumpet above; Cyrus stands on a small plinth inscribed: 'CIRVS'. A central plinth is also inscribed: 'Ciri manus ex Presopoli - ' ; the reverse inscribed, dated, and signed below a three line inscription in dark blue in Xanto's hand: '.M.D.XXXVII. Ciro da persi favorito i[n]via/ L'Hoste suo co[n]tro a Astiage per mosteralli (mostrargli) /
Che quell'ch'il ciel dispo[n] co[n] vie[n] che sia. / fra[n]: Xanto
Rovigiefe.' [1537 / Cyrus favoured sent from Persia / Takes his side against Astyages so he will show him / That that which heaven arranges comes together whatever it may be / Francesco Xanto from Rovigo']; on the reverse four labels, one above the inscription on a small square, "Purchased by Mr Forrest at the sale of the effects of Mr Visconti, architect in Paris 1854", two flanking the inscription and a fourth, a page cut out from the printed Visconti Sale catalogue - the entry for lot 6.

40cm diameter - Estimate £80,000-120,000

Provenance: M.Visconti, Bonnefons de Lavialle, Paris, 13-16 March 1854, lot 6
With William Forrest, London.
In the collection of the family of the present owners since the late 19th / early 20th century. Entries in the family archives suggest that the maiolica was acquired between 1894 and 1916 from three different sources: from G. Donaldson in1894 (with two items bought from the Spitzer Collection) in 1896 and in 1897; from H.A.Peto in 1899 and from S.M.Crossley in 1908 and in November 1916. The majority of the entries with a few exceptions are however unidentifiable.

Note: The dish illustrates a scene from an episode in the Life of Cyrus (Justinus Book 1 Ch V1) and probably refers to the moment after a feast when Cyrus addresses the people of Persepolis persuading them to join him in a rebellion against his grandfather, Astyages the last king of the Medes. The armed soldiers wield the axes they have used the day before to cut down a wood by the side of the road. Cyrus asks the assembled men if in the future they would choose a life feasting under his command or if they would prefer to labour under the Medes as they laboured whilst felling the trees: 'Qua vobis vita pr[a]eterita superioris diei an presentum eligitis?' (Which way do you chose, your past life [as] more superior days or the present?) Sœbaris on the left, an ex-slave and companion to Cyrus, stands beside Harpagus who will in vengeance desert King Astyages and surrender his army to Cyrus. The wives and daughters of the Persian army in the window frame will give crucial support to the Persians in the ensuing battle with the Medes. The inscription below the central plinth reads 'Ciri manus ex Presopoli' (Cyrus's band of men from Persepolis).

The inscriptions on this plate, the Latin one on the front and the Italian verse on the reverse are inspired by either the 16th century Latin publications of Justin's' Epitome of the Latin historian Trogus Pompeius' Historiae Philippicae or the many editions of the 16th century Italian translation by Squarciafico but are Xanto's own words, understanding and interpretation of the text. The graphic sources have been put together in Xanto's usual way, recycled, copied and pasted, reversed and pasted from engraved images of different subject matter. As Tim Wilson and Dora Thornton suggest they reflect his '..aspirations to auspicious erudition and ..his tendency to use the same or similar compositions, assembled from prints over and over again' (Dora Thronton, Timothy Wilson, Italian Renaissance Ceramics, a catalogue of the British Museum Collection, London, 2009, p.288).

The figure of Cyrus is derived from a figure to the side in Gian Giacomo Caraglio's engraving after Parmigianino's Martyrdom of St Peter and St Paul (Ilustrated Bartsch, 1985, vol 28, p. 85, 8(71)) Xanto used this figure at least twice before on a small dish of 1535 illustrating Astyages and Mandane (Sold Freeman's, Philadelphia, 7th October 2010, sale no.1383, lot 2027) and on a plaque from the 1536 Persian History series decorated with a scene of The Plot of Gobrio and Darius against Babylon, (as discussed by Johanna Lessmann, 'Bildfliesen von Francesco Xanto Avelli zur Geschichte Persiens', in Keramos 186, 2004, fig12, p.70, p.81). The figure of the soldier holding an axe on the stairs to the right is derived from an engraving that is possibly by Marco Dente da Ravenna after the Battle with a Cutlass, possibly by Giulio Romano (Illustrated Bartsch 1978, vol 26, p.210, 211(171)). Xanto used this figure many times before and after this, for an example see on the dish The Marriage of Ninus and Semiramis, (J.V.G.Mallett, Xanto, Pottery-Painter, Poet, Man of the Italian Renaissance, cat 40, p.128). The figures at the table on the right are reversed and copied from Marcantonio Raimondi's Parnassus after a drawing by Raphael (Illustrated Bartsch, 1978,vol 26, p.244, 247(200)) and are found on other works, for example a dish with an allegory of the Sack of Rome of 1530, sold at Sotheby's on 8th December 2009, lot 1. The figure at the back holding up an axe with both arms is the figure in reverse in the background of Marcantonio Raimondi's Abduction of Helen, after Raphael (Illustrated Bartsch1978, vol 26, p.208, 209(170)) and the figure of the angel hovering is found in reverse on an engraving of the Martyrdom of Saint Felicity by Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael (Illustrated Bartsch, 1978, vol 26, p.153, 117(104)). The figure of the slave Soebaris is a reworking of the figure of Theseus on a bowl in the Wallace Collection by Xanto of 1530 decorated with the subject of Hippolytus escaping from the Wrath of Theseus (See J.V.G.Mallett, ibid., cat 24, p. 97). These then are typical images one would expect Xanto to have used from a variety of printed sources adapted and sometimes reversed to his own ends.

The dish appears to be one of a small group of large plates decorated by Xanto in 1537 with scenes inspired by the Persian History by Marcus Junianus Justinus - that is his abbreviated version of the lost Universal History (or Historiae Philippicae) by the Latin historian Trogus Pompeius. The same type of 'terza rima' verses on the reverse of the plate are also found on the two other plates in this group, one of which is in the Ashmolean "Xerxes fleeing from Greece" (See Timothy Wilson, Maiolica. Italian Renaissance Ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford 1989, cat16, p.40) The other, formerly in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick, is decorated with a scene from "The Battle of Thermopylae", (See Johanna Lessmann, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig, Italienische Majolika, Katalog der Sammlung. Braunschweig, 1976, p.566, noIX). All three dishes were painted the year following the production by Xanto of an enormous series of panels illustrating the same Persian History of 1536. The subject matter on the plate here is a narrative sequel to the subject matter on a plaque (recorded but now lost) from this series of panels depicting "The Feast of Cyrus at Persepolis". (see Johanna Lessmann, ibid., 2004, p.68 note 39.)

One could speculate with Wilson (ibid., p.40 and note3) and Lessmann (ibid., p.75-77) that these plates of 1537 are a commission from other patrons in response to a favourable reception of the Persian History plaque series. However, we will never know why Xanto chose these themes in the first place or to what extent these themes of 1537 and those on the 1536 plaques were inspired by Xanto's own view of contemporary events

This previously unrecorded and beautifully painted dish is decorated by one of the most celebrated and remarkable Renaissance maiolica pottery decorators, Francesco Xanto Avelli who came from Rovigo near Padua (c. 1486 - c.1542). Although Xanto appears to have been highly educated and wrote poetry, he is not recorded as being involved in the administration or ownership of the various pottery workshops he is associated with. One of the most remarkable and celebrated decorators of Renaissance 'istoriato' maiolica, he worked much of his life in Urbino, Italy. Subjects like this show a decorator who engaged with classical texts in their original or their recent translation into the vernacular and combined them with images copied from contemporary engravings to produce highly original work that reflects the true colour and brilliance of the Renaissance period. As such this discovery has to be seen as a significant addition to the list of recorded maiolica by him. (For the comprehensive list of works by or attributable to Francesco Xanto Avelli by Elisa Paola Sani, see appendix C, p. 190-201, in Xanto - Pottery-Painter, Poet, Man of the Italian Renaissance, J.V.G.Mallet et al., Wallace Collection, 2007.)