Nicola da Urbino, a dinner service for a duchess

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris in front of Nicola da Urbino, armorial plate (tondino), The Story of King Midas, c. 1520–25, tin-glazed earthenware, 27.5 cm in diameter (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Additional resources

See this plate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Learn more about the expanding the renaissance initiative

Read more about Isabella d’Este on Smarthistory

Jessie McNab, “Maiolica in the Renaissance,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002)

See more Italian Renaissance ceramics in the National Gallery of Art

Jörg Rasmussen, The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 10, Italian Majolica (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989).

W. David Kingery, “Painterly Maiolica of the Italian Renaissance.” Technology and Culture 34, no. 1 (1993): 28–48.

Timothy Wilson, with an essay by Luke Syson, Maiolica: Italian Renaissance Ceramics in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016).

Lisa Boutin Vitela, “Virgilian Imagery and the Maiolica of the Mantuan Court,” in Virgil and Renaissance Culture, ed. Luke Houghton and Marco Sgarbi (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2018), 49–62.

Lisa Boutin Vitela,“Dining in the Gonzaga Suburban Palaces: The Use and Reception of Istoriato Maiolica,” in Le Banquet de la Renaissance: Images et Usages, ed. Diane Bodart and Valérie Boudier (Pisa: Predella, 2013), 103–115.

Lisa Boutin Vitela,“Isabella d’Este and the Gender Neutrality of Renaissance Ceramics,” Women’s Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal 40, no. 1 (Jan., 2011): 23–47.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a very special plate that dates from the time of the Renaissance.

[0:13] When we think about the Renaissance in Italy, we might normally think about sculptures and paintings, but there are beautiful ceramics that are incredibly important from this time period that we should be spending a lot more time looking at.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:26] We’re looking at this very special plate by the artist Nicola da Urbino. He was a very important Renaissance maiolica artist who worked in the town of Urbino, where you had this important ceramic workshop.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] Hence his name, Nicola da Urbino, “Nicola from Urbino.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:41] This particular plate was made for Isabella d’Este, who is the most important female patron of the Renaissance. What makes it even more interesting is that it was commissioned by her daughter, Eleonora Gonzaga, who was also a really important woman in the Renaissance.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] We’re talking about families from very powerful city-states in Renaissance Italy, from Urbino, from Mantua.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:05] This plate gives us great insight into art made for these Italian courts in the Renaissance, because when Eleonora commissioned this for her mother, Isabella d’Este, she commissioned Nicola da Urbino to create not just one plate, but an entire service of ceramics. We don’t know exactly whether they were used for feasting or if they were just placed on display in a credenza.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] This set of more than 20 ceramics is now distributed in museums across the world.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:33] The Met has several of them. We’re looking at a particular plate that is showing the musical contest between Apollo and Pan, but there’s also another plate on display here that’s showing revelry and drinking.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] In fact, this display of maiolica, this very special kind of pottery, give us some idea of what the experience was like of seeing these grouped together on the credenza, the display cabinet in the villa that these were made for.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:58] The plate is showing this musical contest between the god Apollo and Pan, who was a satyr. On the right, we’re seeing Pan as he’s playing his flutes, and we see Apollo behind him. Then we also see this other figure, who’s King Midas, who is judging the musical contest.

[2:16] Then, on the left, we see Apollo holding his musical instrument, and we see Pan — who’s now on the ground, his flutes before him — and the musical contest has ended; Apollo has won. In the story, King Midas judges Pan to be the winner, and Apollo gives him the ears of an ass, which we’re not seeing here.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] The idea is that the god Apollo was so self-evidently superior that only someone with an ass’s ears could have judged Pan to be the winner of this contest.

[2:45] We have this wonderful story from Ovid, the ancient Roman poet and writer, and from his book, the “Metamorphoses,” which was a source that was used frequently in the Renaissance. Through that, we have a demonstration of Isabella and Eleanora’s classical education.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:03] We actually know that she was not only well educated but an incredibly important patron of the arts. Showing a scene from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” would have been a demonstration of that erudition, of that learning. Other people who were viewing this would have similarly displayed their own education around knowing the elements of the story.

[3:22] There’s a playful element to this plate as well.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] The artist has included these personal emblems of Isabella.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:28] We see one. That’s a candelabrum on the left. We see on the right a bunch of lottery tickets that have been grouped together. Then we see musical notations.

[3:37] These are what’s called in Italian “imprese.” These are mottoes or personal badges. Using imprese is a sign of her learning, because you would have to be in the know. You would have to be educated and asking questions about what these mean. We find these across the different plates, even the other ones that we see here in The Met’s collection.

Dr. Harris: [3:56] Then, in the very center, we have a larger emblem that joins together the coat of arms of Isabella’s family and her husband’s family. So this is a very personal object.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:07] And it was intended to be handled and looked at. We have these incredibly beautiful and fine details, a wide range of colors. It would have been intended to be picked up and looked at very closely so that you could study the scene.

Dr. Harris: [4:22] We’re looking really at a painting on a plate. Art historians refer to these as “istoriato.” This idea of painting history, mythology, these narrative scenes on pottery.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:34] Istoriati ceramics were actually really important in the early part of the 16th century here in Italy, in part because of this humanist learning, where people were really interested in Greek and Roman myths. They wanted to have these conversation starters when they were enjoying feasts at court.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] We believe that these were on display in the villa, which was in the suburbs, so slightly out in the countryside. A little bit less of a formal environment than the official palace in the city. There were gardens. There were beautiful dining rooms. There was amazing food to be had. We have to imagine this in a very luxurious setting.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:10] Music and revelry were important themes in these maiolica. Let’s talk about the technique more, because what we’re seeing here is this beautifully colored plate. We’ve got lots of blues, and oranges, and yellows, and greens, and browns. This was a varied color palette for this time in ceramics. The artist, Nicola da Urbino, was incredibly skilled at painting these.

Dr. Harris: [5:32] This is not easy surface to paint on. It was a surface that was coated in a glaze that was made out of tin, and the tin absorbed the pigment very quickly.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:43] Somewhat like fresco painting, you had to be very careful as you applied your pigment, and you had to know exactly what you were doing, and you had to do it quickly so that you would remember exactly what you were painting on the surface of the unbaked clay.

Dr. Harris: [5:57] When I look at this, it’s so clear to me that we’re in the Renaissance. There’s this beautiful landscape with atmospheric perspective that moves back into the distance. The figures all move so naturally and gracefully and interact with one another in this very easy way, and we follow the narrative very easily.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:17] Even though this is a classical story, it’s ancient Greek, I love that the landscape in the background looks like Italian Renaissance or even late medieval buildings.

Dr. Harris: [6:28] On the lower right, Midas points to Pan. He believes he’s the winner of this musical contest. Apollo peeks out from behind a tree. On the left side, Midas is in the background, but Apollo is standing in this lovely contrapposto.

[6:43] Here we have all of the beauty, the love of the human body, the love of nature of the Renaissance, but on a piece of ceramic. Often artists derived the composition for these from prints, and that is the case in this plate that we’re looking at today.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:00] There’s actually a close relationship with print culture and ceramics at this time. We know, for instance, that Nicola da Urbino and his workshop were looking to a particular printed text of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” that was printed in 1497.

[7:13] This also relates to humanist learning at the time, where there is this keen interest in print culture, and of course the Greco-Roman texts that are being printed as well.

Dr. Harris: [7:23] Here we are in the early 16th century, the time of Michelangelo, of Raphael, of Leonardo, but looking at something different, but just as beautiful and important.

[7:34] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "Nicola da Urbino, a dinner service for a duchess," in Smarthistory, November 5, 2020, accessed June 13, 2024,