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Six maiolica “ambrogette”

Sei “ambrogette” di maiolica

Six maiolica “ambrogette” (tiles)
Rampini manufactory, painter probably Siro Antonio Africa
Pavia, 1693-1704

a) 6.88 x 5.51 in (17.5 x 14 cm); 0.55 lb (252 g)
b) 7.08 x 5.70 in (18 x 14.5 cm); 0.51 lb (233 g)
c) 6.88 x 5.70 in (17.5 x 14.5 cm); 0.54 lb (245 g)
d) 6.81 x 5.51 in (17.3 x 14 cm); 0.50 lb (230 g)
e) 6.88 x 5.51 in (17.5 x 14 cm); 0.50 lb (229 g)
f) 7.08 x 5.70 in (18 x 14.5 cm); 0.51 lb (233 g)
State of conservation: intact

These six ”maiolica fina” small “ambrogette” belong to a family of ceramic works considered among the finest produced between the 17th and 18th centuries. For a long time, this type of maiolica was attributed to the Venetian village of Angarano, but later it was definitively attributed to the pottery factories in Pavia. A fundamental study ascribed this production specifically to Pavia through an analysis of Lombard collections and a comparison with archaeological remains found near the two main manufacturing sites in the city. (E. Pelizzoni – M. Forni – S. Nepoti, La maiolica di Pavia tra Seicento e Settecento, Milano 1997).

The six small oval tiles have rounded edges and are decorated with a historiated motif. They were created using high-fired polychrome technique, with a predominance of cool tones and a dominance of gray and blue, interspersed with manganese, citrine yellow, orange-yellow, and green. The six small “ambrogette” are characterized by the same stylistic features, with a similar decorative design.

The first tile (a) depicts a female figure, holding a stiletto and sitting near a pedestal supporting a relief-decorated baluster vase. Behind her, a child is holding a chalice, while through the arches of a portico, a glimpse of a mountainous landscape can be seen in the background. The female figure could possibly be Lucretia, an example of virtue in ancient Roman culture.
In the second “ambrogetta” b), the Biblical episode of Judith and Holofernes is depicted through canonical iconography: the decapitated body of Holofernes lies on the bed in the background, while the protagonist, Judith, is seen placing his head into a sack held by a maidservant. Through an archway a shining slice of the moon gives the perception of nighttime. Surprisingly, within the narrative, there is the presence of a basin in the shape of a large shell, closely resembling the products of Pavia’s factories.
The third small plaque (c) depicts a female figure standing on a plinth and framed by an architectural arch with a vast mountainous landscape in the background. The woman, with her breasts exposed, is accompanied by two children: one approaching her as if wanting to be picked up, and the other seated with an apple in his hand. The protagonist lends herself to different interpretations: perhaps she represents Rea Silvia with the two twin founders of Rome, or perhaps she is an allegory for the Pietà, a common theme depicted on maiolica.
In the fourth tile (d), three characters are depicted near a column. The main figure is an old man with a sad expression, holding a cup, while a woman, wearing a turban on her head, also holds a cup in her right hand and a pitcher in her left. A second woman with her hair bound holds another pitcher behind the old man: at his feet a traveller’s bag can be seen, along with some apples and a slice of cheese on a rectangular base. It is likely the sad Biblical episode of Lot and his daughters, at the moment when they get him drunk in an effort to restore the human race after the destruction of Sodom.
The last two “ambrogette”, (e) and (f), give more prominence to the landscape, populated by small figures of travellers resting. They are characterized by consistent architectural elements, such as the depiction of an Allegory of Music in the tile (e), or the representation of a horse statue on a pedestal in tile (f). In the latter, a family of wayfarers sits on the left, leaving ample room for a landscape that opens up in perspective, enriched by mountains and distant turreted architecture.

The six tiles were likely part of a decorative series incorporated into wooden supports, possibly a piece of furniture or a frame, or another type of ornamental structure, as described in documents regarding the use of works by “Africa” in Lombard interiors: “six oval maiolica pieces by Africa, also enclosed by carved and gilded wooden frames.” (Asp, Notarile di Pavia, G. Re, 13013, 16 agosto 1743).
The use of maiolica tiles as architectural decoration is also demonstrated by the “tiles inserted between stucco volutes to adorn a room in the Palazzo Ghislieri Aizaghi Malaspina, later chiselled out and sold after the death of the last owner, Abbot Spallanzani.” (P. Pavesi, L’abate Spallanzani a Pavia, in Memorie della società italiana di scienze naturali e Museo Civico di Storia naturale di Milano, VI-III. Milan 1901, pp. 18-19). The information documents how this significant ceramic production was perceived as early as the 18th century – Lazzaro Spallanzani died in Pavia in 1799 – as being outside of contemporary taste, and subsequently fell into oblivion for more than two centuries.

The pictorial style corresponds to that of the Africa family: it is likely that these works were directly influenced by Siro Antonio Africa, the most refined maiolica painter of the late 17th-century Lombard decorative culture.
The decorator Siro Antonio Africa, along with his nephew Siro Domenico, had worked alternately in the two main Pavia factories (Carlo Giuseppe Rampini and Antonio Francesco Imbres as documented from the last decades of the seventeenth century) where he signed his works in a different way (E. Pelizzoni in, op. cit., pp. 29-32). In the 1735 inventories of the Rampini manufactory, the maiolica were defined with the architecture of Africa. He is considered among the initiators of refined decoration with architecture, of which this work is one of the finest examples. Preserved in the major ceramics museums of the world, the dishes of Pavia are considered among the most elegant works among the eighteenth-century maiolica.
Our oval plaques find particularly close comparisons with the maiolica pieces preserved in some private collections and within the Collection of Applied Arts at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. (R. Ausenda, a cura di, Musei e Gallerie di Milano. Museo d’Arti Applicate. Le ceramiche, Tomo II, Milan 2001, pp. 101-104, nn. 111-114). A very close comparison in terms of quality and pictorial style can also be made with a centerpiece from the Francesco Franchi collection in the Pinacoteca of Varallo Sesia, depicting a banquet scene with satyrs and bacchantes. (G. Anversa, La collezione Francesco Franchi e la donazione alla Pinacoteca di Varallo Sesia, Borgosesia 2004, p. 302, n. 157).
The pictorial technique of the tiles, where the figures stand out on architectural pedestals juxtaposed with rigorous structures that frame perspective backgrounds and meticulously described landscapes, finds a prestigious comparison in pieces of notable scenic impact, such as the large vase from the D’Azeglio collection at the Civic Museum of Palazzo Madama in Turin. (Pellizzoni, op. cit., p. 173).
This pictorial and stylistic uniformity is also recognizable in the inspiration taken from contemporary engravings: the figures are painted in diluted manganese brown with rounded faces, characterized by small mouths, almost standardized with serious and somewhat melancholic expressions, reminiscent of some engravings based on the drawings of Johann Christoff Storer, who was active in Lombardy during that period. For example, one can observe how the figure of “Purity” by Storer (cod. catalogo nazionale n. 0300619948-7) has been used in tile (c), where the painter reproduces the pose from the engraving, but modifies it in terms of clothing, hairstyle, and, above all, the nature of the character itself, which here represents “Charity.”
This approach is found in many characters derived from the well-known engraving by Sole Giovan Dal Gioseffo and Giovanni Paolo Bianchi, with Storer still being the creator. In this engraving, part of the illustrative apparatus for the funeral of Isabella of Spain is depicted, featuring an overall view of the interior of the Cathedral, with allegorical statues representing the virtues of the deceased Queen.
The same approach of freely interpreting engravings can also be seen in the figure of the wayfarer, leisurely reclining in the shade of the columns, in the tile with the Allegory of Music (e). The character here resembles the beggar placed in the foreground in Jacopo Cotta’s engraving depicting a triumphal entry (numero catalogo generale: 00636266, Civica Raccolta di Incisioni Serrone Villa Reale), which is also based on a drawing by Storer.

The “ambrogettes” were placed, probably in the 19th century, in 18th-century style carved and gilded wooden frames.


Photography: Bruno Pulici


P. Pavesi, l’abate Spallanzani a Pavia, in Memorie della società italiana di scienze naturali e Museo Civico di Soria naturale di Milano, VI-III. Milano 1901, pp. 18-19;
E. Pelizzoni – M. Forni – S. Nepoti, La maiolica di Pavia tra Seicento e Settecento, Milano 1997;
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