The Courtauld is delighted to have acquired two fine examples of Italian Renaissance tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) through the Cultural Gifts Scheme, which is administered by the Arts Council. The works were presented to the scheme by Sam Fogg, a leading dealer in European Medieval art and a long-standing supporter of academic and gallery initiatives at The Courtauld, with a wish that they be given to The Courtauld.
The tin-glazed earthenware floor tile was made for Isabella d’Este (1474 – 1539), the art-loving Marchioness of Mantua and one of the most prominent patrons of art and music of the Renaissance. The tile features the emblem of the Gonzaga family of Mantua, a sunburst with a scroll inscribed with the words in old French, PER UN DIXIR (‘par un désir’, or ‘for a desire’). This was one of the mottos of Ludovico III (1412-78), powerful patriarch of Gonzaga, Isabella’s husband’s grandfather.
One of a set of nine different designs which formed part of a lavish flooring scheme, the tile may have originally decorated Isabella’s studiolo (private study) in the family’s castle at Mantua, or else it may have been used for the pavement of a room in another Gonzaga palace nearby. Private studies were splendidly decorated and meant for reflection, reading, writing and music. Isabella’s studiolo is perhaps the most famous of all, adorned with specially commissioned artworks, including paintings by Mantegna and Perugino.
The delicately painted maiolica dish, in a narrative style known as istoriato, depicts a moment from the story of Diana and Actaeon, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most popular Ancient literary sources used by artists during the period. Having gone hunting with his hounds, Actaeon came upon Diana and her nymphs bathing in a pool. To punish him, the goddess turned him into a stag so he would be unrecognised and killed by his hounds. The pottery painter of this dish chose to show an unusual moment – when Actaeon is in the midst of his transformation into a stag, seen here with the head of a man and the body and antlers of a stag.
Dr Alexandra Gerstein, McQueens Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld commented: “These works enrich The Courtauld’s prestigious collection of Italian Renaissance ceramics, extending it into new areas, such as interior design and Greek mythology. The pieces will be integrated into our new displays where they will be presented in a showcase highlighting the art of maiolica as one of the period’s great achievements, alongside painting, metalwork, furniture and sculpture. The tile also allows us to address the role of elite women in commissioning art during the Renaissance, We are grateful to Sam Fogg and to the Cultural Gifts Scheme for these thoughtful additions to The Courtauld’s collection, opening up exciting opportunities for object-based teaching in the galleries and in The Courtauld’s new Object Study Room.”
Sam Fogg, said: “We are pleased to present an Urbino maiolica dish and a tile from the studiolo of Isabella d’Este to The Courtauld. This is in appreciation of the planned re-display of the maiolica in Somerset House and the research and publication by Dr Elisa Sani.”
The maiolica tile and dish will be on display in the Blavatnik Fine Rooms when The Courtauld Gallery reopens later this year following a major transformation. An accompanying catalogue by Dr Elisa Sani, a leading maiolica scholar, will comprise entries on the 72 pieces in the collection, each beautifully illustrated with new photography, and an essay containing substantial original findings on the taste of the eminent Victorian collector, Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88). The catalogue, published in collaboration with Paul Holberton Publishing, aims to be an exemplary volume on maiolica, and joins an ongoing series of collection catalogues produced by The Courtauld.
The Cultural Gifts Scheme enables UK taxpayers to donate important works of art, and other cultural objects to the nation. In return, donors will receive a tax reduction based on a set percentage of the value of the object they are donating – 30% for individuals and 20% for companies. Since the scheme was introduced by the UK Government in 2013, cultural gifts have steadily become an important part of the UK’s cultural philanthropic landscape. To date £26 million worth of important cultural property has been brought into UK public collections through the scheme.