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Basin with scenes from the campaigns of Julius Caesar and “grotesque” decoration; the reverse moulded with pairs of swans

Fontana Orazio

Urbino, c. 1561 - 1575 (width)

tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica)

The trilobed basin is moulded on the reverse with three pairs of swans in the manner of embossed Mannerist metalwork. The four istoriato scenes show incidents from the campaigns of Julius Caesar; in the centre is the submission of the Britons to Caesar. These scenes are derived from drawings made c.1561 by Taddeo Zuccaro and his brother Federico for the so-called "Spanish Service", commissioned by Guidobaldo II Duke of Urbino as a gift to Philip II of Spain, one of the best documented of Renaissance maiolica commissions. A letter from Paolo Mario written in 1562 notes that the subjects were dictated by the Duke's secretary Muzio of Giustinopolis and that the service was made "with more care than if it had been made of precious stones". No piece that definitely formed part of this commission is known, but it is known that (to Taddeo Zuccaro's annoyance) his drawings remained in Urbino and were used by maiolica workshops for some years afterwards. It has been noted by Dominic Simpson that the upper scene on this dish, though not found on known surviving drawings, recurs as the centre of a plate sold at Christie’s, London, 12 March 1990, lot 327. One of the Zuccaro drawings for the service, or a workshop copy, with a different border pattern sketched out, is in the Ashmolean.

Maiolica decoration with grotesques on a white ground was derived ultimately from the grotesques painted by members of Raphael's workshop in the Vatican loggias shortly before Raphael's death in 1520. It was introduced into Urbino maiolica around 1560, almost certainly by the workshop run by Orazio Fontana (d.1571), and rapidly became the most prestigious form of maiolica, much in demand for diplomatic gifts. The grotesques on this basin are derived, as shown by Christopher Poke, from the engraved Petits Grotesques of Jacques Androuet Ducerceau.

This is Renaissance maiolica at a high point of technical brilliance and success. J.C. Robinson, when cataloguing this and the companion basin (now in the Wadsworth Atheneum) for the South Kensington Exhibition in 1862, wrote: "There are perhaps no finer pieces extant of the fine Urbino majolica of the period of Guido Baldo II, than these two most beautiful salvers..."

Purchased with the assistance of Madan and Blakiston Funds, Resource/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Art Fund, the Friends of the Ashmolean, the Central Purchase Fund, a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, and private donations, 2001.  WA2001.50