Arts & Sciences Research Paper #26: The Brief Experiment of Medici Porcelain
Our twenty-sixth Research Paper comes to us from Lady Agnes Marie de Calais. She begins by writing about a unique small ceramic item she came across in a museum one day, and this paper is evidence of the research she has begun to dive into related to that unique item.
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The Brief Experiment of Medici Porcelain
In the summer of 2018, while visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of pottery and began to wonder about its origin. I had no idea at the time that this seemingly common piece of tableware actually represented a major manufacturing moment in late European Medieval history, the development of soft paste porcelain. A complex, scientific and secret history surrounds this one precious medieval material, often given as a gift to royalty. And, like most things owned by royalty, those around them sought a copy of the work they could afford.
The Importance of Porcelain in Medieval Western Europe
Our story begins in 1295 when a very small item arrived in Venice that changed an entire industry. This small white bottle from Qingbai province, China, had been carried by Marco Polo around the world and survived hazards unknown. It had a unique smooth texture, remarkable strength compared to its thinness, and a glaze that appeared almost as though it was a fine layer of glass. We know of it from writings, but the actual extant piece has been lost to history, as well as the knowledge of what it held.
Later, in 1338 another item, the Fonthill Vase (Image 1), similar in composition but more ornate than the bottle mentioned above, made its way to Pope Benedict XII in Avingon, France, as a gift from the last Mongol Emperor. Its beauty and unique material opened a trend of porcelain items being given as gifts to royalty and people of influence. However, these pieces were limited in number and the perils of shipping often made it hard for them to survive import to the European continent.
Then, in 1487, Lorenzo de Medici was gifted several porcelain vases. After his death in 1492, one of these vases made its way to Florence and into the hands of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Franceso di Medici. Realizing the value of porcelain, being a supporter of the arts, and having the means to do so, he established the Medici Porcelain Factory. The purpose of this endeavor was to recreate a hard, glossy porcelain that resembled the imports from China, but which could be manufactured locally and thus distributed to a wider market than a few dignitaries or royals. This would generate revenue, especially because the Medici would be the only family in Europe to hold the secret of porcelain (”Soft Porcelain”).
The Complexity of Creating Porcelain
Before exploring the Medici Factory and its works, it is important to pause and observe why the imported porcelain was so different from clay pottery already available on the European continent. Porcelain differed from other stoneware of the time because it is harder in its finished state and thus artists can use porcelain to create more elaborate designs. Although both porcelain and stoneware are made from clay and other naturally occurring minerals that strengthen when fired in a kiln, the clay used to make porcelain is more refined, purified, mixed with bone and heated to a much higher temperature.
High quality, large manufacturing of porcelain had been occurring in China and the East for centuries by the time its existence was made known to the West. Because of trade secrets and technological advances, the imported porcelain was of the hard paste variety. It was fired at temperatures much higher than could be reached in Medieval European kilns, often to temperatures in excess of 1450 degrees Celsius, and a clear finish and smooth appearance were the result. Because Medici’s artisans were working from existing imported pieces, they had to attempt to reverse engineer the pottery. They tried various blends of minerals and elements as well as different firing techniques and temperatures in the effort to produce a product that looked like the pieces coming from the East. What the factory ended up creating was porcelain of the soft paste variety. Soft paste porcelain is fired at a lower temperature, and as a result it is prone to imperfections, not as delicate, and easier to break than hard paste porcelain. In fact, the distinct cloudy, glassy, and uneven appearance of the surface of Medici pottery is one of its identifying characteristics. Additionally, the makeup of the clay the Medici factory and its alchemists used differed on a chemical level from the kaolin clay mined in China (Pollard). It could be said that the Medici factory was short lived because of the disparity in quality between soft and hard paste porcelain. Despite the work of these early chemists, or alchemists as they were known, it would not be until the early 18th century that Europe learned the reason behind the difference, when Christian missionaries stole trade secrets and returned with them to Europe, making hard paste porcelain both financially and scientifically possible (Spallanzani).
The Medici Factory
Regardless of the inferior quality of the soft paste porcelain, the Medici Porcelain Factory was able to fabricate a number of pieces, some given as gifts of value and ambassadorial quality that were recorded in extant documents from 1575 to 1587. It appears that upon the death of its patron, Franceso di Medici, the factory and its artisans lacked the funding they needed to further pursue their endeavor. However, Medici porcelain held its value and importance long after as demonstrated by the care and existence of the pieces now in museums (Spallanzani).
Ironically, despite its value and the factory having operated for twelve years, fewer than seventy pieces are still known to be in existence (Le Corbeiller). The majority of these are vases and flasks with delicate blue flowers on a background of white (Image 2). The signature clear, but bubbled and uneven glaze appeared on them all, and they all bore the crest of the Medici on them. However, there is one museum piece that is markedly different from the rest.
One Extant Piece of Interest
In the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, there is a small room called the Alyce Morrissey Gallery that contains a varied and unique collection of medieval artifacts of daily living. In the back corner of this softly lit area, toward the right as you enter, is a curious and small work of Medici porcelain. It is only a little more than six inches tall and it is not covered in the delicate flowers of the other surviving works (Image 3).
The pale porcelain forms a rounded cruet for oil and vinegar that resembles a pair of woman’s legs with full round thighs smoothing down into a flat base. From each foot there is a small opening where presumably the condiments once flowed. However, even more remarkable than its structure is its artwork. Crabs scutter across the legs, fish swim and dart, and eels writhe and slither. This reverie of aquatic life is all delicately painted in the same cobalt color as the other pieces, yet its humor, less palatial qualities and diminutive size hint that some of the pieces manufactured so long ago in Florence may have been within the reach of merchants and others with more moderate financial means. If so, daily use across centuries, with the expected accidental droppings, chipping due to washing, and other various impacts of daily life, could easily account for the small number of surviving pieces. The seemingly unique art on this piece and the way it appears to differ from other extant pieces has lead me to think that it could have been made for a more casual setting or purpose. Sadly, the story of this piece, like those of the many pieces of more modestly constructed Medici porcelain, missing from museum collections, is hidden to history’s eyes. However, researching the past of this one item does provide a next step. In the future, I hope to discover more about the history of cruet by visiting the Massachusetts State Archives, where the travel journals and notes of the last owner of this item were donated in 1912.
Le Corbeiller, Clare. “A Medici Porcelain Pilgrim Flask.” The J. Paul Getty Museum
Journal, vol. 16, 1988, pp. 119–126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4166583.
Pollard, A. M. (2015) Letters from China: A History of the Origins of the Chemical Analysis of Ceramics, Ambix, 62:1, 50-71, DOI: 10.1179/1745823414Y.0000000008
Spallanzani, Marco. “Medici Porcelain in the Collection of the Last Grand-Duke.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 132, no. 1046, 1990, pp. 316–320. JSTOR,
“Soft Porcelain vs. Hard Porcelain.” Whitehalls Auctioneers & Appraisers, 20 Feb.