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Painted dish

This exquisite dish belongs to a service which belonged to Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), widow of Francesco Gonzaga, fourth Marchese of Mantua (1466-1519), who served as regent to her son, Frederico, and ruled Solarolo in Romagna in her own right for some time until her death. The service was sent to her as a present from her daughter, Eleanora, Duchess of Urbino, for use in her villa at Porto near Mantua, and exemplifies the brightly coloured maiolica wares, decorated with stories from classical mythology and personalised with the owners’ coats of arms, which became fashionable amongst early sixteenth-century Italian elites. Only twenty-two complete pieces of the service survive, two of which are decorated with biblical scenes, while the rest feature scenes from history and mythology.

Renaissance maiolica was a more luxurious item than the ceramics that preceded it due to the tin-oxide glaze (tin being a relatively expensive commodity) which gave it an opaque white quality. By the early sixteenth century, a full palette of colours made of powdered metal oxides was available to potters. This dish was produced by Nicola da Urbino, who produced the finest painted maiolica in the 1520s. It bears the combined coats of arms on Isabella d’Este and her late husband, as well as episodes from the story of Peleus and Thetis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI. The figures are based on woodcut illustrations in Giovanni dei Bonsignore’s vernacular edition of a fourteenth-century paraphrase of The Metamorphoses, which was the first illustrated Italian edition, published in 1497. On this dish, Peleus is shown entranced by the sleeping Thetis, who changes form, first to a swan and then to a dragon, when he attempts to embrace her. While dining on dishes such as these, guests could not have failed to notice their hosts’ wealth, classical learning, and participation in the latest dining fashions.