Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe, potter and workshop owner (active 1520-1537-8), is acknowledged as the master of the ‘istoriato’ style of maiolica decoration in early 16th century Italy. Consensus describes him as the “Raphael of maiolica painting”. His graceful fluid draftsmanship, lyrical figure drawing, understanding of recessional space, and use of contemporary classically inspired Renaissance architectural views are all characteristic of his style and are well illustrated here. Overall, his knowledge of the work of his contemporary Raphael, who died in 1520, and his circle in Rome, is evidenced by a print by Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, who also worked in Rome at this time. The print, from 1510-20, is a circular engraved composition in reverse of this subject. Both potter and printmaker appear to have knowledge of an unknown original narrative image of this subject matter, now lost. As is sometimes the case with Nicola, some of the figures in this piece hint of an even more direct knowledge of Raphael’s early work.
This dish and other early work by Nicola are related very closely to a monogrammed and dated dish of 1521 with the figure of a seated sovereign, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, to a dish illustrating the Calumny of Apelles in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford (dated by Wilson to 1522-3), and to a plate of Venus, Mars, Apollo, and Vulcan now in the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin. Above all, however, it relates to an acclaimed service or credenza encapsulating Nicola’s early poetical style made for an unknown client consisting of seventeen surviving pieces donated to the city of Venice by the patrician Teodoro Correr after his death in 1830. This is the largest surviving set of 16th Century ‘istoriato’ maiolica in the world in a single collection. The service, even quite recently, has been described as “one the loveliest achievements of all maiolica-painting”. There may be reasons on grounds of subject matter and style to speculate that this plate may originally have been part of this service.
In the 19th century the Correr maiolica service was thought by scholars to have been painted by the Urbino painter Timoteo Viti (1469-1523) and was seen as the jewel in the crown of the Correr collection. The painting style of Nicola’s early work that we have here seems to stylistically reference his work in the broadest sense. Viti, trained in the dynamic humanist artistic background of Bologna under Francesco Francia, is known to have worked with Raphael in the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome circa 1511. As a friend of Raphael, Viti is reputed to have obtained or inherited the most important group of Raphael’s studio drawings and to have brought them back to Urbino after Raphael’s death. He himself died in 1523. Nicola’s knowledge of Raphael’s style of work may in part be due to links with Viti whose workshop in Urbino he may have frequented or where he may have even trained. Giovanni Antonio da Brescia copied and produced his own versions of the work of the Bolognese printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-before 1538). Raimondi had also trained under Francesco Francia and did more than anything to disseminate Raphael’s ideas in Italy and abroad from about 1510.
This rare piece comes from the collection of James Ewing (1775-1853) Strathleven House, Dunbartonshire, by descent and by inheritance to the present owners. An inventory of 1926 lists the dish along with another (Lot 65) as being framed in “Quaint Gilt Circular Frames” and valued at £300.
Ewing, a Glasgow merchant with antiquarian interests and contributions to the historical and literary Maitland Club, was closely involved with civic affairs as director of Glasgow’s Chamber of Commerce. In 1832 he served as Lord Provost of Glasgow and as a Glasgow MP. Marrying late and in his 60s, he accompanied his young wife on a tour of Europe and Italy in 1844-5. Correspondence in connection to this trip was later privately published as a memoir by the Reverend MacIntosh Mackay in 1866. Within these letters there are few references to Ewing acquiring or buying art, although it was at this time that he bought several significant pieces, one being the Portrait of Jacopo Dolfin by Titian, now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He does however mention, in a letter from Florence on the 27th November 1844, purchasing “China pieces of the fourteenth century” when he was in Genoa a few weeks previously. This gives us some evidence that he acquired maiolica at this time and it seems likely that this is how he came to acquire this dish and the other in this sale.
It is unprecedented for maiolica from this early period of Nicola’s maiolica production to come on the market. We were honoured to present this rare work to auction in October in our sale of The Contents of Lowood House, where after a long international bidding battle it reached a world record price of £1,236,000 (premium inclusive).
Gavin Strang, Managing Director and Head of Private Collections, commented, "As the auctioneer, it was a real joy to bring the hammer down at over £1million on this incredibly rare dish – a new world record price I believe. The whole story of its discovery tucked away in a drawer, through the meticulous research carried out by our specialists, and then fierce international bidding on auction day has been exciting from beginning to end!”
With thanks to Celia Curnow for the extensive research and footnote on this lot.
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