Blog: Conservation of an Italian Ceramic Jug at The Courtauld Gallery

3 Nov 2023

Written by Alexandra Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld Gallery.

This film records some of the discussions that took place between Alexandra Gerstein, The Courtauld’s Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, the independent ceramics conservator Tiago Oliveira and freelance maiolica scholar Elisa Sani around the final stages of conservation of a tin-glazed jug made in Montelupo, not far from Florence, in the middle of the 16th century.

This prestigious jug is decorated with the coat of arms of the powerful Medici family of Florence, set between two vibrantly painted curved hollow baskets called cornucopia. Bunches of fruit overflow from the tops of these cornucopia, connecting with leaves and other foliage to create a sense of splendour and plenty typical of the style of decoration on maiolica jugs of this kind.

At some point in the past, before the jug came into The Courtauld’s collection, its spout was broken, reconstructed and repainted. The spout and neck of the jug had been painted with a mass of green plant leaves, a bit like a leafy salad and unlike any existing comparable jugs of the period.

Following Elisa Sani’s research in preparation for the recently published catalogue of The Courtauld’s maiolica collection, we engaged ceramics conservator Tiago Oliveira, with whom we had worked for several years, to remove the old conservation and replace it with a historically more sensitive treatment. This involved removing the old spout and creating a new one, and, most importantly, removing the old repainting and replacing it with new retouching.

For the retouching, we decided to adopt two different conservation methods. For areas of the neck where elements of the decoration were missing but it was clear what they were from their placement, for example because they responded to a symmetrically placed surviving element, Tiago used a naturalistic painting technique whereby forms were built up with brushstrokes. For surfaces of greater uncertainty, where the decoration was completely missing and there were no hints in the surrounding areas, it was decided to employ a dotted or pixilated technique. This approach is used in ceramic conservation to suggest, more tentatively, what may have been there originally.

The mix of the two methods or approaches is what is being discussed in this film. This was the final of several conversations in front of the object, all of which also involved The Courtauld Gallery’s Chief conservator, Graeme Barraclough.

Italian Maiolica and Other Early Modern Ceramics in the Courtauld Gallery is available to buy now in .

Highlights from The Courtauld51ݶ collection of Italian Maiolica and Early Modern ceramics are on display in The Blavatnik Fine Rooms on Floor 2 of The Courtauld Gallery.

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