17th century maiolica de delft: tracing the tradition of blue and white in tile and pottery

by clé tile | published: May 01, 2023

A mural wall made from delft tiles.

Church and Convent of Madre de Deus, Lisbon, Portugal⁣. The tiles and paintings depict scenes from the Life of St. Francis, the Life of St. Claire and daily life in closure and devotion.⁣ photo: Tomasz Starzewski

blue and white. beloved across cultures. a bridge across time and place. from palaces to pantries, indoors and out, it’s a pairing that’s a part of our collective consciousness. our take on this iconic combination weaves historical elements with a thoroughly modern joie de vivre. handpainted in Italy, our 17th century maiolica de delft collection plays with motifs both naturalistic and geometric, lithe and lavish, united by this crisp, compelling color palette that traces its roots back several centuries.

A still-life painting of cheese, apples and grapes.

‘Still Life with Cheese’, by Floris van Dijck, c. 1615. (source)

the canvas is created

in 9th century Assyria, artisans developed a decorating technique for clay goods that layered pigmented glazes over an opaque white glaze containing tin oxide. the tin glaze made an ideal canvas for detailed decoration, both because of its clean, white hue and because its viscosity keeps pigments painted on the surface from running and blurring during firing, allowing for wonderfully fine detail.

Artfully worn floor tiles with handdrawn emblems of a gauntlet and a dog.

Floor tile, commissioned by the Gonzaga family, possibly made by Antonio dei Fidelli, 1492 – 94, Italy. Floor tile, commissioned by the Gonzaga family, possibly made by Antonio dei Fidelli, 1492 – 94, Italy. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (source)

during the 15th and 16th centuries, tin-glazed earthenware exploded in popularity, especially in Spain and Italy. in Spain, the glazed ceramics became known as majolica, because they were shipped across Europe from the Spanish island of Majorca (also spelled Mallorca). when Italian potters began manufacturing their own tin-glazed ceramics, they called them maiolica. (clé has chosen that spelling for our collection, to reflect its particularly Italian inspiration and crafting.)

inspiration travels

from Spain and Italy, these vibrant ceramics traveled to Belgium, both in the holds of trading ships and with migrating craftsman. three Italian artisans set up shop in Antwerp around 1500, hiring Dutch potters to craft maiolica to their specifications. and from there, maiolica flowed to Holland where it inspired Delftware around 1600. 

Delftware is arguably the most famous type of tin-glazed pottery, and although the name refers to any tin-glazed ceramic ware from Holland (or, later, England), it has become all but synonymous with the most beloved color combination: blue and white

the birth of the blues

to understand how blue and white came to rule the day, we need to rewind, several centuries before Delft and maiolica and halfway around the globe, to China during the Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368).

Blue and white dishes, one with a dragon, one with horses in an intricate pattern.

Dish, unknown maker, 1426 – 35, Jingdezhen, China. Dish, unknown maker, 1655 – 65, Jingdezhen, China. (source)

Chinese potters had been creating bi-color works, painting with blue pigments on grayish-white clay, since the Tang dynasty (618-906). but during the Yuan, they began working with kaolin, the soft white clay we associate with porcelain today, and developed processes to preserve and maximize the clay’s whiteness through the firing. on this surface, fine and white as rice paper, they painted exquisitely detailed designs in inky blue cobalt pigment topped with clear glaze.

In the ensuing centuries, these blue-and-white wares were exported to countries around the world.

desire is the mother of invention

blue-and-white export ware from China was first traded to countries in the Near and Middle East along the silk road. by the fifteenth century, Turkish potters were reproducing Chinese designs using a fritware clay body that replicated the white of Chinese porcelain. aristocrats throughout the Ottoman Empire collected them — which led to them being highly sought-after by the less-than-aristocratic classes.

A plate with a floral motif.

Turkish Iznik Plate. In the Anatolian town of Iznik near Istanbul, craftsmen replace traditional clay with quartz, creating a brighter white base for offsetting cobalt blue. Stylized flowers, leaves, fruits, and linear geometric motifs also distinguish the Ottoman pieces. (source)

by the 16th century, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain had arrived in Europe from China and Turkey in the galleys of trading ships, and simply put, Europeans could not get enough of it. to fuel the craze, China and Japan produced ceramics specifically for the European market.

Still Life with a Chinese bowl, a Nautilus Cup and Fruit, by Willem Kalf. c. 1662 (source)

The Apothecary by Pietro Longhi, Venezia, c. 1701 - 1785 (source)

inspired by these exotic porcelain wares flowing into their ports, potters in the trading hub of Venice established their own distinct style of maiolica, decorated with musical instruments, globes and other images reflecting Venetian culture in blue on the white tin-glazed ground.

elsewhere in Europe and in England, factories began to create their own blue and white porcelain pottery. others, particularly in Holland, carried the popular palette into a form of ceramics where the competition was less fierce: decorative tile.

the wallflower becomes the belle of the ball

and here’s where the threads of our story entwine. applying the tin-glaze technology invented in 9th century Assyria with the motifs adopted from Spanish and Italian pottery (majolica and maiolica, respectively), in the blue and white color palette made famous by Chinese artisans of the Yuan dynasty, Dutch ceramicists created tile that has enchanted and inspired the world for more than 400 years.

The Milkmaid c. 1657–1661 by Johannes Vermeer featuring delftware (source)

A kitchen wall with delft tiles.

Claude Monet’s home kitchen at Giverny clad in delft tiles. Photo: jessica helgerson

A Delft tile tableau at Chateau de Rambouillet IledeFrance. (source)

The Badenburg, a two-story royal bathing pavilion furnished with Delft tiles at Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich. C. 1718-1722 (source)

because they were made from tin-glazed earthenware, rather than more expensive and delicate porcelain, Delft tiles, like maiolica, were accessible to the middle class citizens of Europe, who covered walls with them, inside and out. as a wall surface they were not only beautiful, they were durable and easy to clean, making Delft and maiolica tiles ideal for kitchens and pantries, around fireplaces and along stairwells, among other places.

bringing tradition up to the moment

respecting the artisanal traditions that spawned them, our 17th century maiolica de delft tiles are made from fine Italian earthenware, crafted and painted by hand. united by the classic blue and white, the collection brings together motifs drawn from history but not hidebound by it, bringing centuries of tradition up to the moment — rooted in the past, yet utterly fresh, utterly new, utterly clé.

Two clé delft tiles in the workshop
clé delft tiles on a bedroom wall.