The exhibit highlights the use of Isabella d’Este’s coat of arms (Gonzaga impaling Este) and her seven imprese (XXVII; lottery tickets; musical rests and repeats; motto; alpha and omega; initials; candelabrum) with one of her husband’s imprese (fiery crucible) as decoration on her maiolica service. In the visualization below, it is clear that three imprese are the most frequently used as decoration: XXVII (second column from left), her motto (second from right), and the musical rests and repeats (far right). Duchess Eleonora Gonzaga, who probably commissioned Isabella’s maiolica service, may have been aware that her mother favored those imprese in particular among her many emblems.
These family and personal symbols were declarations of identity that also could be found in the adornment and iconography of Gonzaga palaces, medals, and paintings. Isabella’s imprese spoke to her virtues, including her erudition and ability to overcome obstacles, while her deceased husband’s crucible – a vessel in which the purity of metal could be tested – indicated his incorruptible character. For further information about the imprese, see the Glossary on the introductory page of the Ceramics Exhibit.
The purple hue found in every column of the visualization above indicates the prevalence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a literary source for the maiolica narratives. Each of the imprese was included on at least one dish with an Ovidian story. The second most frequently used literary source was Virgil’s Aeneid.
Plates and bowls in an average size of around twenty-seven centimeters (green background color in visualization below) appear to have been the most practical for service, as that is the most common size among dishes that survive. Renaissance banquets required a relatively small number of serving platters, placed centrally and symmetrically on the table, a moderate number of large plates, and much greater number of smaller dishes to present and distribute food.
A letter to Federico II Gonzaga’s secretary, Giovan Giacomo Calandra, from Giovanni Francesco Picenardi, called El Poeta sent on August 25, 1530 concerned maiolica orders. El Poeta informed Calandra that “perché quelli piatti grandi non si usano più nè vorrei torli e poi non piacessino” (because these large plates are no longer used, I would like to omit them as they would not be pleasing). El Poeta’s avoidance of exaggerated sizes echoes a similar sentiment expressed in a letter to Eleonora Gonzaga, duchess of Urbino, from her representative at the papal court, which stated that the pope “does not care for [either] large or small bowls.”
Despite indications that large dishes were superfluous, they survive among those intended for Isabella, Federico, and Margherita. The largest among Federico and Margherita’s dishes (the Abduction of Helen and The Marriage of Ninus and Semiramis) are about forty-six centimeters in diameter, while Isabella’s largest, the Abduction of Helen and the Gathering of the Manna (red background in visualization above), are slightly bigger than Federico’s, at about fifty-two centimeters. The slight reduction in the size of Federico and Margherita’s dishes may indicate changing banqueting preferences, which by the late 1520s may have required fewer large platters.
Gifting of Maiolica
& the Politics of Mantua and Monferrato
The maiolica service in the exhibit that features only the coat of arms of the Paleologo of Monferrato (see cards view of the four dishes below) previously has been interpreted as commissioned for Duchess Margherita Paleologa during the early years of marriage as a gift from her consort Duke Federico II Gonzaga. With further analysis of the ceramics exhibit, however, it becomes apparent that this service includes narratives that appear masculine, with Caesar, Pompey, Michelangelo, Vitruvius, Daedulus, among others decorating the dishes. The narratives would have been strange choices for a young bride in comparison to the marriage service with Gonzaga arms impaling Paleologa that include dishes with representations of Juno, Athena, Diana, and Venus.
Recently, scholars have suggested that the intended recipient of this Paleologo service commissioned by Federico may have been Margherita’s uncle, the last marchese of Monferrato. Such a gift would have been intended to gain favor for Federico’s claim to the territory of Monferrato. Her uncle may have never received the service due to his death in April 1533, but the narratives and prominent Paleologo coat of arms (without the linked Gonzaga arms) indicate that Duchess Margherita Paleologa was probably not the intended recipient. By comparing the Paleologo dishes to the others in the exhibit, the more masculine narratives seem intended for a man, rather than a recently married woman.