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2019-05-24

Ceramics from Manises: history of the most summery material

Pottery from Manises (in Valencia, Spain) has its origin in metallic reflection ceramics from the Muslim era. After the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslims (711 A.D.), decorative arts were influenced by the eastern region; so ivory, textiles and ceramics became all famous for their great quality.

Before that conquest, metallic reflection ceramic had already been used in other places, such as Persia or Mesopotamia, and in the Iberian Peninsula it had been very important at the time of the Caliphate and later, during the Nasrid dynasty. The city of Málaga became its main production centre and, in the 14th Century, it spread to Manises, Paterna (Valencia), and subsequently to Reus, Muel and Barcelona.

1. History of Manises ceramics

The development of eastern-Spanish ceramics began around 1304, during the reign of James II, when the Lordships of Manises and Paterna were bought by D. Pedro Boil, ambassador of John I in the court of Granada. He established there metallic reflection ceramics imported by the Muslims and moved many Nasrid ceramists to his lands, until Manises became the most important producer of ceramics in the Middle Ages.

There, potters had been in Moorish hands for a long time, and they used to make cobalt blue earthenware pieces over a tin bath, or in green and manganese, but they were mainly used for local consumption. However, after the settlement of the new ceramist centre, the most requested production was the one we now know as Manises, and especially the gilt earthenware, which was even exported.

Ceramics reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the same time as the trade boom in Valencia, which became the main port in the Mediterranean. That is how a great amount of ceramic works arrived to the great Italian families from Naples, Florence, Siena or Venice, replacing gold and silver crockeries. Also popes Alexander VI and Callixtus III often requested earthenware and tiles from eastern Spain to be used in Vatican halls.

To a lesser extent, pieces were also exported to the Netherlands, where they were often depicted by Flemish painters, as in the central panel of the Portinari Triptych, by Hugo van der Goes, which can be found in Uffizi Gallery in Florence, as well as in some other works by Jan van Eyck.

2. Classic series (15th Century)

The gilt reflection technique’s formula was one of the best kept secrets. It was based on three firings; the last one used a mixture of silver, copper and vinegar solution and was put into an oven with a reducing atmosphere, which was what gave it that characteristic gilt reflection. Shades could vary from yellow to coppery, depending on the materials and firing time in the oven. Afterwards, pieces were decorated by hand. Such items are very popular within antique ceramics auctions held at Balclis.

Regarding production methods, the most outstanding were large dishes, called “del xapelet”, bowls with ears, honey jars, pharmacy jars, basil jars and balloon-shaped jugs with a cylindrical neck.

In terms of production stages, we can identify three different periods:

The 15th Century, known as “classic series”, stood out for that mixture of Christian and Muslim decorations, but especially for their plant decorations such as:

  • “Parsley leaves”.
  • Flowers like split oranges.
  • Thistle leaves and the “Gothic rose”, especially in years 1420 – 1500.
  • Fern leaves (1425 – 1450).
  • The “ivy leaves” series (1450 – 1475).

Heraldic decoration was also very common in Manises’ production. In fact, in the production of the ivy leaf series, some pieces included coats of arms of Spanish lineages, and among them, the most usual were those of the Kingdom of Aragon, Castile, Valencia, Sicily, and even the Medicis. Likewise, symbols of different guilds were also very common.

3. Moorish series (16th Century)

During the 16th Century, the so-called “Moorish series” (1475 – 1609), started to show changes in production’s quality; walls became thicker, backgrounds began to show a creamier enamel, and there was a small decline in the glaze’s metallic quality. In addition, the potter’s wheel was no longer used to create those pieces, and the mould began to be used, resulting in a central nipple in dishes, gallons and overlaps.

With regard to decoration, gilding was still present, and it was only at the end of the century that blue reappeared to highlight embossed decorations, which were made by pressing, such as leaves or zoomorphic figures. The most important pieces used to differ from the rest because their backs were decorated with archaic patterns, such as stylised ferns, pineapples and alafias, although it was also common that the same decoration was repeated on the front of the dish.

On the other hand, there was a final distancing from the Islamic world in representations, which were replaced by smaller ones. The most common ones were:

  • “Musical notation” motifs. They were a kind of degeneration between an ivy leaf and a holm oak, very similar to a musical note.
  • “Nails” motifs. They were always placed in the centre of the composition, forming a single scene, with a figure larger than it, and surrounded by filled leaves and stems.
  • “Lace” motifs. They consisted of a net with rings at the vertices, very similar to the lacework of Irish fabrics, and very frequently used in other pottery centres of that time.

4. The most popular series

Finally, in 17th and 18th Century Manises’ pottery manufacturing suffered a major decline, to the point of evolving to much more popular series, so that objects were reduced in size, adapting themselves towards functional shapes and seeking greater resistance, which resulted in thicker pieces.

With regard to decoration, gilding evolved to reddish tones, and the most frequent decorative motifs were those known as kidney-shaped and serrated leaves, which used to completely cover the piece. As in previous centuries, ornamentation with overlaps or scales, as well as carnation leaves, was repeated tirelessly.

On the other hand, figurative representation was limited to isolated animals such as roosters, eagles, sparrows or Saint John birds, drawn with wide open eyes, which almost filled the entire item’s surface.

In the 19th Century, Manises kept on producing classic pottery, although of lower quality, and began to produce popular pieces, such as the well-known “demandá” dishes.

2019-05-24