Apothecary jar (idria or stagnone)

Made in Savona or Albisola
Late 16th to early 17th century

In short

“It makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment. Nothing on earth is its equal, a creature without fear. It looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud”. This is how the Leviathan is described in the book of Job: the terrible sea monster within whose jaws the unlucky Jonah fell in the Biblical episode portrayed on this vase.


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The vase is part of a series inspired by old Testament stories featuring mythological subjects. The Renaissance istoriato decoration runs uninterrupted on the surface of the jar until reaching the name plate on the front, elegantly imitating Gothic parchment. The name plate divides the narrative into two distinct scenes, finishing on the back in line with the lower loops of the handles. Jonah’s istoria is painted in polychrome, in antimony yellow, sap green and cobalt blue. The upper section shows the prophet having been thrown off the ship by sailors, floundering amidst the waves where the sea monster awaits him with his jaws open wide, ready to swallow him up. In the lower section, the waves have miraculously subsided and Jonah, standing on the gaping mouth of the monster, is about to be restored to land. Five Jewish men are depicted on the shore and the buildings of a fortified city can be seen in the distance. The snake-like coils continue on the back of the vase where, framed by the loops of the name plate, there are two men posing with their armour: footwear, feather-crested helmets, shields and weapons. It overlooks a village with buildings, crossed by a long six-arch bridge.

The decorator of these vases reinterprets the iconographic language developed by the painters of Genoa school in the late 1500s and early 1600s with vivid immediacy. However, we must not overlook the repertoire of engravings drawn from the work of important Renaissance artists which continue to enjoy a wide popularity in the making of Savona and Albisola majolica. This can be seen in the sea monster whose precise reference is Jonah and the Whale, a burin engraving attributed to Luca Ciamberlano (A. Bartsch, Le peintre graveur, Vienna 1818, vol. XX , 29.1), taken in turn from the print Andromeda  by Agostino Carracci around 1594-95 and belonging to the series of thirteen known as the Lascivie (A. Bartsch, The illustrious Bartsch, Italian Master of the sixteenth century, Agostino Carracci, p. 319, n. 199). The work of Bernardo Castello was particularly influential in shaping the work of the ceramic decorators; he authored the illustrations of the first illustrated edition of  Liberated Jerusalem.

In this unusual marine scene, the viewer is struck by the dynamism of the waves, disquieted by the elements unleashed by the monster evoked from the abyss; this fantastical representation has become deeply rooted in popular medieval imagery. The wind fills the boat’s sail, all of which are rendered with precise nautical detail. The detailed description of the ship is striking, which contrasts with the formulaic depictions of boats found on much of 17th century majolica.

In the 1950 Exhibition of antique Ligurian majolica Barile suggests this pottery may date to the sixteenth century, attributing it to Albisola-Urbino production, then deferring it back to the following century in the subsequent 1965 volume. Cameirana (1992) suggests their production and manufacture may be located in the Savona region at some point between the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, pointing out that the decoration is reflected “in the sixteenth-century majolicas of central Italy and in France, particularly in Lyon, by Italian decorators.” The weight of these idria is considerable when compared to products of the following century; their morphology, inspired by mannerism in artifacts of metal or stone, is also consistent with a possible production in the latter years of the sixteenth century. The illustration of the biblical episode reveals a kind of animated realism, free from cliché, able to convey a narrative verve using elements that subsequently became simplified into stock images over the course of the seventeenth century.

An attribution to Savona or Albisola production would suggest the presence of elements that were then introduced to the decoration of Ligurian pottery tradition, such as the mountains with sloping ridges or the armed figures. Their representation was subsequently consolidated and became very successful in Baroque majolica. One can definitely attribute the expressive freedom of the unknown artist to Savona or Albisola production; an artist able to use the base as a space for telling a story and transmitting their own emotional vision, using loose fluid brushstrokes to fill the contour lines, with no sign of the obsessive, diligent precision that characterizes the rigidity of the perfect, glazed washes of the masters of Central Italy. It is therefore possible to suggest that these idria are examples of the production documented by Savonese sources as “Old Testament istorie” (Rossetti 1992, p. 161; Cameirana 1992, p. 165) and are likely to have had much greater significance in Savona and Albisola than might have been thought from the few artefacts conserved to date.

This ceramic is shown in room 5.


Production: made in Savona or Albisola
Material: majolica
Size: h. 47 cm, w. 35 cm
Inscriptions: “Aq. Lactuce”
On loan from the Foundation “A. De Mari”


Bibliography: A. Cameirana, ”Maioliche decorate a grottesche ed istoriate nella ceramica savonese della seconda metà del ‘500”, in ”Atti del XXV Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola 1992, Florence 1995, pp. 165 – 170; A. M. Rossetti, ”Ceramica a Savona ed Albisola nella seconda metà del Cinquecento. Produzione e commercio”, in ”Atti del XXV Convegno Internazionale della Ceramica”, Albisola 1992, Florence 1995, pp. 149 – 164.