Majolica Definition – 2015


What IS majolica? Or is it maiolica? What’s the difference?

Start here. Which is the odd one out?

Result of Google Images search for 'Majolica'
Result of a Google Images search for ‘majolica‘, March 2015

You spotted it. The dish with chicks looks different in style. This could help us with our majolica definition.

George Jones Majolica Game Pie Dish
George Jones Victorian majolica pottery ‘full nest’ game pie dish

 The glazes look a little different too.

Majolica and Maiolica up close
Majolica and Maiolica from Google ‘majolica‘ search – up close

Shiny runny colours versus strokes which appear painted on with a brush.

Could this indicate a difference in manufacture? This might also help us with our majolica definition.




Now we are looking at plates only.

majolica plate - google search results
Google Images search for ‘majolica plate’, June 2015

Can you still see a difference in style? Sure you can.

Naturalistic vs Italian style Majolica and Maiolica
‘Italian’ vs ‘naturalistic’ style in Majolica and Maiolica

One group is kinda Italian. The other group is kinda naturalistic.

There is also a difference in how they are made but we’ll come to that shortly. Let’s press on with style.



Difference in Style

Italian Majolica from Google Search
Google Images search for ‘Italian majolica’, June 2015

Here’s more of that Italian looking stuff. Nothing naturalistic here. This is ‘Italian maiolica’. Earthenware with opaque white glaze and painted decoration in the Renaissance style. For centuries the above style of pottery has been called ‘maiolica’.

Unfortunately at various times and in various countries it has also been called ‘majolica’ and still is. Awkward.

Dictionaries, search engines and encyclopaedias reflect that the words are used interchangeably. Many give the primary majolica definition as ‘maiolica’. Google does the same but add a qualifier such as ‘Victorian’ or ‘Austrian’ or ‘American’ and Google gets it right.

Victorian Majolica definition Google images search
Google images search for ‘victorian majolica’, June 2015.

This google search shows us what we are looking for. Majolica made in the Victorian era 1851 to 1900. This is our ‘majolica’. Earthenware covered with richly colored glazes frequently relief decorated and naturalistic in style.

Majolica definition has morphed over the centuries. We clearly have two different types of pottery. To help clarify the situation let us try to compare them. The key differences we have shown in bold.

First, the names used.

WHEN:MAJOLICA (Victorian majolica)MAIOLICA
Pre-19th CenturyN/AMaiolica, majolica, fayence, delft
19th CenturyPalissy ware, majolicaMajolica, maiolica, delft

19th Century majolica was named by Minton as ‘Palissy ware’. The public called it ‘majolica’. Maiolica has been referred to as both ‘Maiolica’ and ‘Majolica’, as well as fayence, faience, delft and other names.

Next, the predominant styles.

WHEN:MAJOLICA (Victorian majolica)MAIOLICA
Pre-19th CenturyN/ARenaissance
19th CenturyNaturalistic, Renaissance RevivalRenaissance Revival

Note the predominantly naturalistic style of 19th Century Victorian Majolica. Maiolica all through the ages is predominantly Renaissance in style.

Finally, differences in the glazes and how the pottery is made.

Property:MAJOLICA (Victorian majolica)MAIOLICA
Earthenware BodyYesYes
1st firingBiscuitBiscuit
(Unfired) Glaze layer to biscuitNoYES
Tin Glaze layerNoYES (sand+potash+lead+tin)
Opaque whiteNoYES
Colored Lead GlazesYES (sand+potash+lead) to biscuitNo
TranslucentYES but looks opaqueNo
Painted DecorationUsually NoYES to unfired glaze layer
2nd firing finalUsually YesUsually Yes

Note some key differences: Majolica’s richly colored lead glazes are applied direct to the biscuit. Maiolica’s tin glaze is applied to the biscuit unfired, then decorated with painted brush work before firing. The result is the distinctive opaque white layer with painted decoration. Note also the centuries old term ‘tin glaze’ describes the effect of adding tin, not the main ingredient in ‘the mix’.


Maiolica definition – Earthenware covered with opaque white tin glaze with painted decoration in Renaissance styles.

Majolica definition – Earthenware covered with richly colored lead glazes frequently relief decorated and naturalistic in style.

Not everyone agrees. So we have been investigating and cross-referencing. A future blog will explore the many causes of confusion. It is a fascinating journey. We revisit extracts from key publications going back to 1851.

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Sense (definition) majolica, n. 3. “A type of 19th-cent. earthenware with coloured decoration on an opaque white tin (or sometimes lead) glaze”. This takes care of Minton’s rare tin-glaze product but ignores Minton’s popular earthenware with colored lead glazes applied direct to the biscuit that was perhaps the most successful pottery of the Victorian era.

We will propose a sense (definition) majolica, n. 4. , with citations (quotations) in support.

World’s largest online gallery of MAJOLICA

Majolica International Society


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