the early European

Albarello

a fancy jar for salve and show-offs

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two albarelli from the 1400s, Florence, 23,4 cm tall, 17,4 cm wide, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
1 a richly decorated albarello, probably made in Damascus, Syria, 14th century, 34,1 cm tall, The David Collection, Copenhagen

What’s an albarello?

The term albarello is used for a cylindrical jar with a constricted base and a short, wide neck. In the 15th century, Spanish and Italian potters became famous for their tin-glazed products, including the albarello. However, both the glazing technique and the shape of the albarello were imports from the Middle-East.(fig. 1) In this article I’ll tell a bit about the Spanish and Italian albarelli of the late middle ages and the Renaissance.

In the video below you can watch a reconstruction of a 15th century albarello being made. Remember to put your sound on.  

 

 

2 a detail from an illustration in Li tre libri dell’arte del vasaio by Cipriano Piccolpasso, ca. 1557, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How were albarelli made in the Renaissance?

My reconstruction method differs slightly from the traditional production process of the albarello. We know quite a bit about the manufacture of early Italian maiolica because of Cipriano Piccolpasso (1524 – 21 November 1579). He has been so kind to leave a manual behind called Li tre libri dell’arte del vasajo – The three books of the potter’s art. It gives us the opportunity to compare the potter’s wheel in the video to Piccolpasso’s illustration.(fig. 2) There are three main differences. Firstly, the 16th century wheel was mostly made of wood. Secondly, it had plain bearings instead of ball bearings. The third difference is that, according to Piccolpasso, the wheel head, on which the clay was shaped, used to be especially designed for specific wares. If the potter needed to throw another shape he would switch the wheel head.[1] I don’t know how widely spread this feature was but I’ve never seen it on modern wheels. Regardless of these differences, my wheel probably rotates much like a Renaissance wheel.   

The recipe for the white glaze was often based on lead and tin. Lead is a very stable ingredient that provides a low melting point. Sadly, it’s also toxic and harmful to the environment. That’s why I chose to work with a lookalike that does contain tin but no lead.

3 an albarello with lustre-glaze, Manises, 1st quarter of the 15th century, 39 cm tall, 14,5 cm wide, Musée du Louvre, Paris

In the video, I work with a preparatory sketch before picking up the brush. Some albarelli were originally painted without a sketch.[2] The more complicated designs might have been prepared with charcoal. Surprisingly, Piccolpasso doesn’t write a word about it but a number of almost identical tin-glazed products has been preserved, suggesting that the designs were laid out in a different material before they were painted.[3] In a well-known copying technique, the lines of the design are traced on a piece of paper with pinholes. The potter puts the paper over the glazed surface of the pottery and dusts finely ground charcoal over it. The dust travels through the holes and settles on the glaze, leaving a pattern as a guide for the painter.[4]

The color palette in my reconstruction is limited to cobalt blue only. The earliest European tin-glazed earthenware used to be executed in manganese brown, copper green, sometimes yellow and a light blue. The darker cobalt blue was introduced later along with yellow and orange made with antimony and ferric oxide.[5] Especially luxurious were designs executed in lustre glazes. These would result in copper, silver and golden decorations. These lustre glazes contained among other things copper, silver and sometimes mercury. They had to be fired in a reducing atmosphere, requiring a third firing stage on top of the already complicated trajectory.[6] Arabic and Spanish potters developed this technique to an unequalled level.(fig.3)

4 firing the kiln, detaill from an illustration in Li tre libri dell’arte del vasajo by Cipriano Piccolpasso, ca. 1557, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Early European albarelli were fired in wood kilns. Piccolpasso gives us a wonderful drawing of a maiolica kiln.(fig. 4) He mentions that the kiln should reach the proper temperature after eleven hours of firing. Then the potter needs to check the glow of the fire through various spyholes in the kiln wall to make sure that the heat is equally distributed. If not, he will have to play around with the draft to spread the heat properly throughout the kiln.[7]       

It was quite a challenge to protect the pottery from flames and other harmful influences. This is why tin-glazed products were put inside so-called saggars. These earthenware cylindrical containers were filled with one or more glazed products and stacked one on top of the other inside the kiln. 

It’s good to remember that potteries had small or large groups of employees, allowing different degrees of specialization.[8] Certain ceramists might have spent most of their careers throwing, some others glazing or painting and yet others firing kilns. The idea that one person alone would carry out the whole production process is out of line with the way things usually worked in these kind of potteries.


 

5 detail from an illustration in The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Bologna, ca. 1440, Biblitheca Universitaria ms 2197 fol. 492

What was the albarello used for?

Albarelli are often referred to as apothecary jars but various medieval and Renaissance sources point to a more versatile use.

However, medicine storage must have been a major purpose. In a Bolognese edition of The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna from ca. 1440, we find an illustration of a drug store with shelves lined with albarelli.(fig. 5) Italian hospitals also used tin-glazed storage jars, sometimes great amounts. The Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, one of the largest in Europe, ordered 200 small glazed albarelli, two large albarelli and three small white albarelli for their apothecary in 1433 or 1434.[9]  Some albarelli were made with the emblem of the commissioning hospital. This one for example bears the crest of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.(fig. 6)

In medieval iconography, we often find biblical women holding albarelli, for example the Myrrhbearers that came to Jesus’ tomb. The albarelli indicate the myrrh that they brought to anoint Jesus’ body. In this detail of a painting by Van Eyck we can see Mary Salome holding what seems to be an albarello of Syrian make.[10](fig. 7)

Another clear indication that albarelli were used as pharmacy jars can be found in labels. In the 15th century, albarelli were by exception provided with a painted label. However, this practice became quite common in the 16th century. This jar is inscribed Laudano – laudanum is a painkiller containing opium.(fig. 8)

Other labels suggest a different purpose. This one for example reads CISSCA:BE and on the reverse side LAFRAN (= Bella Francesca- beautiful Francesca).(fig. 9) It seems that such amorous messages turned the jars into the perfect love-gift, especially if they were filled with sweetmeats.[11] Other domestic ingredients were also stored in albarelli.

12 detail from the Portinari Altarpiece, Hugo van der Goes, 1475, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This albarello contained mustard of a fine quality: Mostarda f(ina)(fig. 10) and the jar with the wonderful lady’s portrait must have held a large amount of curcuma (probably turmeric), which was used as a spice, a drug and a yellow dye.[12](fig. 11) This jar could therefore be an example of an albarello used for cosmetics: turmeric was sometimes used by women to dye their hair.[13] 

Yet another inscription takes us back to the pharmacy. Pharmacies of the 15th and 16th centuries did not merely provide medicine but other products such as artists’ pigments too. A 16th century albarello mentioned by Henry Wallis is inscribed PILLE DE LAPIS LAZALI, clearly indicating lapis lazuli, the famous blue artists’ pigment.[14]

Another use for the albarello can be observed in many late medieval and Renaissance paintings. One of the most famous examples must be the Portinary Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes in 1475. Right in the foreground of an elaborate scene with the adoration of the shepherds, a still life can be seen with a corn sheaf, flowers, a glass and an iconic example of a Valencian lusterware albarello.(fig. 12) A related but more surprising use for the jar can be found in Carlo Crivelli’s Annunciation with Saint-Emidius from 1486.(fig. 13)

13 two albarelli in a detail from The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, Carlo Crivelli, 1486, The National Gallery, London
14 albarello with the arms of the Luna family, Paterna, 14th century, 22,3 cm tall, 9,9 cm wide, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland

In this painting an exceptionally luxurious planter is depicted – there can be no doubt that it’s in fact an albarello. A second albarello is sitting on a shelf among a carefully arranged mess of domestic items. It’s covered with a piece of cloth or parchment, a common method for which the albarello’s neck lends itself particularly well. This green jar shows that some albarelli were quite unpretentious. Others were made with expensive materials and elaborate decorations. The more luxurious pottery was sometimes part of diplomatic gifts. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the most powerful Florentine statesmen and influential art patrons of the 15th century, received a gift of maiolica vases from the lord of Rimini. He admitted that he valued these ceramics: ‘more than if they were of silver, for their excellence and rarity … and novelty to us here’.[15] The high regard in which precious ceramics stood at the time is emphasized by numerous albarelli with armorials, mottos and even portraits of highborn men and women. This albarello for example bears the arms of the Luna family, lords of Paterna.(fig. 14) Apparently these ceramics strengthened the identity and status of cities, families and individuals. But the heraldic earthenware wasn’t necessarily owned by the ruling families themselves. Others bought them too, showcasing their support.[16]

Last but not least, the status of tin-glazed pottery can be deduced from the confidence of some Renaissance potters. The Masci family of potters wrote in 1498 that their products were: ‘beautiful and unheard of and sold throughout the whole world, and because of this the city of Perugia takes pride and increases its fame and everyone wonders to see these maiolica works.’[17]

15 reconsctruction of an albarello by Atelier Able, 2020, the original was made in Montelupo in 1420-1450

The Masci potters may have been show-offs, but they were also right. In fact, being beautiful may be the one purpose that those old albarelli never lost. Whether the jars are displayed in museums, depicted in books or spread over the internet – there is still a great charm in their shapes, their colors, their pictures and their patterns. The revival of medieval and Renaissance albarelli through reconstructions is witness to their popularity.(fig. 15) 

 

Etymology

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain states that the word albarello is of obscure origin[18] and it is true that many hypotheses about the etymology are less than convincing. Is albarello derived from Latin alveolus (a cavity, womb, trough, basin) and ellus (a diminutive)? Or is it related to vulgar Latin albarus, Latin albus (white)? Another creative solution for the riddle is the assumption that Eastern jars were originally made from bamboo sections, supposedly inspiring potters to make similarly shaped jars. According to this hypothesis the Italian term Alberello (young tree) was first applied to the bamboo- and later to the ceramic containers.[19]

A relation with the Arabic Al-barani and al barril [20] seems the most plausible. The term Al-barniyya, plural Al-barani can be attested as early as the 10th century and it has been used for both domestic containers of various shapes and cylindrical vessels with a concave profile intended for the storage of medicine.[21] Ilaria Zamuner points out that the diminutive suffix ello can be found in other Italian words such as the hypernym Vasello or in utello, also derived from Arabic – a terracotta pot for oil storage that could be found in the apothecary as well.[22] This hypothesis coincides perfectly with the origin of the albarello, which lies after all in the Middle East.

 

Text: Atelier Able

[1] Cipriano Piccolpasso, 2007. Translated by Ronald Lightbown and Alan Caiger-Smith, The three books of the potter’s art. Scolar Press, London. pp. 53-54
[2] Elisa P. Sani, Matthew Reeves and Justin Raccanello, 2017, Majolica before Raphael. Sam Fogg & Paul Holbertson Publishing, London. p. 13
[3] Catherine Hess, 1988 Italian Maiolica, Catalogue of the Collections, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California. p. 7
[4] Cipriano Piccolpasso, 2007. p. 30
[5] Catherine Hess, 1988. p. 3
[6] Cipriano Piccolpasso, 2007. p. 31
[7] Cipriano Piccolpasso, 2007. p. 93
[8] Elisa P. Sani e.a. 2017. p. 15
​[9] John Henderson, 2006, The Renaissance Hospital – healing the body and healing the soul – Yale University Press – New Haven and London p. 293
[10] Rebekka Theenaart https://www.boijmans.nl/nieuws/uitwisseling-van-culturen-in-museum-boijmans-van-beuningen
​​[11] Henry Wallis, 1904, London, publisher: Bernard Quaritch, Italian Ceramic Art: The Albarello, A Study in Early Renaissance Maiolica p. 14
[12] Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, 2017, Arabian drugs in early medieval Mediterranean medicine, Edinburgh University Press
[13] https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/digital-collection/10.+porcelain%2c+faience%2c+ceramics/228946
​[​14] Henry Wallis, 1904, p. 14
[15] Elisa P. Sani e.a., 2017. p. 11​
[16] Elisa P. Sani e.a., 2017, p. 20
[17] Elisa P. Sani,e.a., 2017. p. 26
​[18] Reginald G. Haggar, 1960. The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain, André Deutsch, 
[19] Catherine Hess 1988 Italian Maiolica, Catalogue of the Collections, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, p. 11
[20] Catherine Hess 1988. p. 8  
[21] Ilaria Zamuner, 2018, Ancora sull’ etimologia di Albarello, published in volume 78, issue 1-2 of Cultura Neolatina, Rivista di filologia Romanza fondata da Giulio Bertoni, p. 113
[22] Ilaria Zamuner, 2018. pp. 117, 118, 119

 

A throwback to the medieval potter’s wheel

The potter’s wheel is already thousands of years old. It’s an amazing invention that allows the potter to work meticulous and fast. Nowadays, many potters are accustomed to the electric wheel to produce their wares but some prefer the old-fashioned human-powered wheels. I’m one of the latter. Since I started making medieval pottery, I have been curious about the development of the medieval kick wheel. How does my modern kick wheel compare to its medieval ancestor? How is a medieval potter’s wheel constructed and how would the construction influence its use?
Apart from these questions, I had the ambition to give throwing demonstrations to show how medieval pottery was made. A reconstruction of a medieval potter’s wheel could possibly answer my questions and provide me with the proper tool for my demonstrations. I decided to dive into experimental archaeology. This my account of that experiment.

image 1 My modern kick wheel

Some foundations and pits of medieval wheels have been excavated. They provide us with information about the size, material and location but no medieval wheels are sufficiently preserved to give a complete image of the shape and construction. However, many images of the time show the medieval potter’s wheel in its full glory.
It seems like there were two main types of wheels in use for pottery in late medieval Europe before 1500. One was a hand-turned wheel that largely resembled a cartwheel with the axle fixed vertically in the floor (images 2 to 11), the other was a kick wheel that looked like a standing spool on a vertical axle (images 12 to 20).

The cartwheel
Some of the cartwheel images show wooden sticks beside the wheel or in the hands of the potter (images 2,3,5,8,9,11). These sticks must have been used to speed up the wheel. Other images suggest that the wheel is accelerated by hand (images 4,6,10). Image 7 doesn’t illustrate either way, here the stick is used by Nigidius to draw lines on the flywheel to prove a point.

The medieval kick wheel
The kick wheel is rotated by pushing the wheel with a kicking motion of the foot, just like my own modern kick wheel. Potters are often depicted with at least one foot close to the flywheel, as if they’re about to give it another swing. They often work with bare feet, maybe to keep their shoes clean and whole but presumably to get a better grip on the flywheel. 

The Renaissance kick wheel
A third type of wheel emerges in the course of the 16th century, for as far as I can trace it down. The construction is more or less identical to my own modern kick wheel. The oldest depiction known to me is from De la pirotechnia by Vannaccio Biringucci, published in Venice in 1540. Here, the kick wheel has a construction built around it that provides a place to sit and a shelf to place tools, clay and finished vessels.

These pictures give a wonderful insight into the daily practice of the medieval and post-medieval potter. But they tell us little about the materials, bearings or construction methods that were used for the wheels. In this experiment, I focused on the construction of the medieval kick wheel. The fundamental difference with the Renaissance wheel is the axle. In the case of the medieval kick wheel, the axle is the only static segment. The wheel head, the spokes and the flywheel are all turning around it (image 23). In the Renaissance wheel, the axle is fixed to the flywheel and the wheel head. They all turn simultaneously: the axle functions as a shaft. The construction around it keeps this whole moving unit centered.
I started making sketches with the concept of a static axle in mind. I was curious if it was possible to make the entire wheel of wood. If this would be possible, I argued, it would probably be the cheapest and therefore the preferred design for a medieval potter.

image 23 the three different types of potter’s wheels, from left to right: cartwheel, medieval kick wheel, renaissance kick wheel

Version 1.0: In 2015, I had the first version of my reconstruction in motion, entirely made of wood. It functioned well enough for throwing small cups and bowls but the wheel wasn’t fast and stable enough to allow a potter to throw large jugs or dishes. It was clear that the wheel needed some improvements. A brief summary of the problems and the solutions can be found in the table below. First of all, the axle was too flexible. The ash that I used turned out to be the wrong type of wood and it was definitely too thin.

Image 24 The first test run in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. ©2015 Floris Meijer

Version 1.1: I fixed a thick oak axle (5,5 cm diameter at the base) in a horizontal wooden cross to replace the ash axle. Compared to ash, oak is more rigid. The first metal part that I added was a brass point on top of the axle with a matching brass plate inside the wheel head. This pin was meant to concentrate all friction on top of the axle on a tiny surface to make the wheel run smoother. However, the brass point only worked for as long as it lasted: it wore down quickly. Also, the oak axle wasn’t sturdy enough.

Version 1.2: The hygroscopic properties of the wood made it shrink and expand depending on the humidity. One time with moist weather, I could barely move the wheel because the flywheel was pressing onto the axle, while with dry weather, there was too much space between the axle and the wheel for it to run smoothly. I soaked the turning points in grease to prevent the wood from absorbing moist but this did not solve the problem.
By that time I had paid a visit to the Töpfereimuseum Raeren in Belgium (Pottery Museum Raeren) where I acquired the publication: Raerener Steinzeug – Europaïsches Kulturerbe (Stoneware from Raeren – European heritage) by Ralph Mennicken. In this book, several drawn cross-sections of late medieval and post-medieval potter’s wheels are included. They did not only confirm the principle of a static axle but also gave me more insight into the additional steel parts. These parts would take away my problem of the expanding wood and reduce the friction of the wheel. Said illustrations are cross-sections of the cartwheel-shaped wheel. But since the dynamic principle of these wheels barely differ from the medieval kick wheel, I made all the following changes according to the cross sections in Raerener Steinzeug (1).
A steel pin is pointing down inside the wheel head (image 25). The pin rests in a cavity on top of the axle that can be filled with fat or oil to prevent the steel from wear. The axle is encompassed in two places: at the wheel head and at the flywheel. Here, plain bearings are used: a metal tube around the axle with a corresponding metal tube that is fixed inside the wooden flywheel and wheel head.
I also decided that the construction should be a bit shorter to correspond with the average height-width ratio of kick wheels on medieval and post-medieval images. To make this happen, I shortened the axle and the spokes of the wheel.

Image 25 a cross section of version 1.3

A third change was necessary to make the wheel mobile. For a medieval potter, it makes perfect sense to secure the axle in the floor of the workshop. A potter could use rocks, beams and wedges to secure it. Foundations like these have been found in various archaeological sites. But since I started out to make this wheel for demonstrations around the Netherlands and beyond, I’m in need for a moveable wheel.
The image on the playing card from the Hofämterspiel (court employee game) from the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien in Vienna (image 26) offered a solution. Here the potter’s wheel is fixed in a wooden platform. I had already secured the axle on an oak cross, now I fixed the wooden cross into a platform made of oak. This was a great improvement over the former situation, where I had to fix the axle in the ground by digging holes and hammering wedges on location.

image 26 playing card from the Hofämterspiel, 1455, ©Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, Kunstkammer

Version 1.3: The last problem was my oak axle. It was too flexible to deal with the forces of a fast turning flywheel. I decided to replace the wooden axle with a steel one. In Raerener Steinzeug – Europaïsches Kulturerbe, Ralph Mennicken describes the results of the excavation of two fundaments of medieval potter’s wheels in Raeren in 2001-2003. The findings date back to the early 16th century at the very latest, but most likely to an earlier time. Ralph Mennicken states: “Legt man die bisherigen technischen Erläuterungen dazu zugrunde, ergibt sich eine vollständige Rekonstruction: In die Pfostenspur eingelassen wird eine mittige Achse in Form eines dicken Stahlstiftes,….” (2)
That is: “The account of all previous technical explanations results into a complete reconstruction: A middle axle shaped like a thick steel pivot is let into the post,….”

This excavation proved that a steel axle was affordable for at least some medieval potter’s workshops and that it seemed rewarding enough for those workshops to make the investment. Armed with this information, I fixed two metal tubes on the new steel axle that corresponded with tubes inside the flywheel and the wheel head. The metal axle (with a diameter of 3 cm) was a lot thinner than the oak one, but it turned out to be stiffer –the vibration was gone (final cross section image 25). In 2018, after these changes, I used the kick wheel during a residency of the Company of Sainte George in the Middelaldercentret in Nykøbing, Falster. There, the wheel worked properly for the first time (image 27). 

Image 27 version 1.3 in action in the Middelaldercentret near Nykøbing Falster, Denmark. ©2018 Pl-photo

 

Conclusion

How was the medieval potter’s wheel constructed?
We cannot tell exactly how. Some parts are invisible in the pictures and the additional information from excavations is limited. The shape and material of some pieces has to be guessed. However, kick wheels around medieval Europe might have differed from each other, so there are probably multiple right ways to reconstruct one. Contemporary images confirm a variety of shapes of the same type of wheel.
It seems reasonable that the majority of the construction was made of wood. The medieval wheel had a static axle, in most cases fixed into the workshop floor. Sometimes the axle was installed below floor level, in a round pit. The excavations of potter’s wheels in Raeren point to a steel axle. If steel axles were a standard feature in medieval wheels can be doubted but my experiment does prove that steel parts can enhance the momentum and stability of a wooden wheel. Both the medieval cartwheel and kick wheel were lowered over the top of the static axle. They needed to stay centered and run smoothly at the same time. Grease was used to maintain the contact points.

How would the construction of a medieval potter’s wheel influence its use? 
The cartwheel 
Some cartwheels were installed below the potter’s seat. They could be made larger and heavier than kick wheels because the potter didn’t have to spread his legs around the wheel to put his feet down. The great weight would make for better flywheels: they could store more rotational energy. Sitting above the pot instead of in front of it had another advantage: the potter could use his or her bodyweight more effectively when forcing the clay into shape. Large amounts of clay that required some strength to center could be worked easier with these wheels. In some images however, the cartwheel is positioned in front of the potter. The previous advantages would not apply for those cartwheels. The downside of all cartwheels is that the potter needs to take his hands from his work to speed it up.
The medieval kick wheel
The major difference with the cartwheel is that it’s moved with the foot instead of the hands. There is no need for the potter to grab a stick to power the wheel and that might speed up the throwing process. Although a potter usually doesn’t shape the vessel while kicking, bringing the wheel to the right speed with the foot might just take as long as moistening both hands for the next pull.  Distributing the effort between hands and feet can also contribute to the comfort of the potter.
We may conclude that the different constructions of the two medieval wheels make them more or less useful under different circumstances. Medieval potters might have chosen one type or the other for such reasons.  

How does my kick wheel compare to its medieval ancestor?
It turns out, the layout of my modern kick wheel is the same as the renaissance kick wheel and therefore more than 450 years old. Of course, the Renaissance kick wheel didn’t have ball bearings and was largely made of wood. It is likely that steel was only used where necessary.
The layout of the medieval kick wheel is very different because of its static axle. Medieval kick wheels with the axle fixed in the floor couldn’t be moved easily in contrast with my modern kick wheel, which can be picked up and put down much like a piece of furniture. If the potter’s wheel on the playing card from the “Hofämterspiel” in Vienna points to a movable type of medieval kick wheel isn’t certain. The medieval wheel was largely made of wood, where my modern wheel is almost entirely made of steel. Steel was probably used in some critical spots of the medieval construction. However, none of these differences change the throwing process. 
The more I improved my reconstruction, the more it worked like my modern kick wheel. With version 1.3, there isn’t much to say about a difference in functionality anymore. Conclusion: my reconstructed medieval kick wheel does not influence the throwing process in any considerable way when compared to my modern kick wheel. This experiment proves that plain bearings, wood and grease can compete with the steel construction and ball bearings of a modern kick wheel.

 

(1) Ralph Mennicken, Raerener Steinzeug Europaïsches Kulturerbe (Raeren: Grenz-EchoVerlag, 2013), 19.

(2) Ralph Mennicken, Raerener Steinzeug Europaïsches Kulturerbe (Raeren: Grenz-EchoVerlag, 2013), 20.