Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Islamic Ceramics

A select catalogue of the Ashmolean's collection of ceramics from the Islamic world from the 9th to 18th century, by James Allen (published Oxford, 1991).

Islamic ceramics, by James W. Allan

Publications online: 46 objects

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Albarello, or storage jar, with vegetal and epigraphic decoration

  • Literature notes

    ‘Albarello’ is the name given to the drug or pharmaceutical jars of waisted form which became popular in Italy from the fifteenth century onwards. Inscriptions on extant Italian albarelli show that their primary use was in spice stores or hospital pharmacies [2]. The immediate origin of the form was Islamic, and one of the earliest extant examples, from thirteenth century, now in the Ashmolean, is illustrated below [EA1956.178]. None of the surviving Islamic albarelli are inscribed, and the only piece of Islamic ceramic bearing the name of a substance [3] is a fourteenth century Syrian jar of a very different form.

    Hence, although they were almost certainly used for storage, it is impossible to be more precise about their likely contents. Ultimately the shape probably goes back to an Egyptian precious metal form of the Roman period. The Arabic inscription on the shoulder of this albarello makes no sense but appears to be derived from the inscriptions of good wishes so common on medieval Islamic objects (nos. 13-14 [EAX.1302 & EA1956.36]). The verticality of the albarello is emphasised by the stripes on the body, while the band around the lower body balances the horizontal bands necessitated by the shoulder and short neck. The finely-painted underglaze black and the washes of underglaze blue provide a delightful combination of precision and movement for the design as a whole.

    [Footnotes:]
    2. Examples of Italian albarelli may be seen in the Ashmolean Museum's collection of Maiolica; see also T. Wilson, Maiolica [,] Ashmolean Museum (Oxford 1989) nos. 3 and 22.
    3. naufar, a water-lily, and hence a medical preparation from the plant, see Louisiana Revy 27 no. 3 March 1987 no. 142.
  • Description

    In the Islamic world albarelli, or storage jars, were produced in a range of shapes and sizes based on the kind of substance they were designed to contain. However, unlike those produced in the West, Islamic albarellos rarely bear inscriptions specifying the content.

  • Details

    Associated place
    Asia Syria (place of creation)
    Date
    14th century (1301 - 1400)
    Material and technique
    fritware, with underglaze painting in blue and black
    Dimensions
    24.3 cm (height)
    15.1 cm (diameter)
    at foot 11 cm (diameter)
    Material index
    Technique index
    coveredcoated glazed,
    Object type index
    No. of items
    1
    Credit line
    Gift of Gerald Reitlinger, 1978.
    Accession no.
    EA1978.1683
  • Further reading

    Allan, James W., Islamic Ceramics, Ashmolean-Christie's Handbooks (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1991), no. 26 on p. 44, illus. p. 45

    Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 18 July-13 September 1981, and London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981, Eastern Ceramics and Other Works of Art from the Collection of Gerald Reitlinger: Catalogue of the Memorial Exhibition, Deborah Willis, ed. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981), no. 322 on p. 114, illus. p. 114

Glossary (2)

fritware, underglaze painting

  • fritware

    Ceramic material composed of ground quartz and small quantities of clay and finely ground frit (frit is obtained by pouring molten glass into water).

  • underglaze painting

    Painting applied to ceramic material before a transparent, or monochrome or coloured glaze for Islamic objects, is applied. The technique was initially developed in China.

Location

    • First floor | Room 31 | Islamic Middle East

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Collection trails

Publications online

  • Islamic ceramics, by James W. Allan

    Islamic Ceramics

    ‘Albarello’ is the name given to the drug or pharmaceutical jars of waisted form which became popular in Italy from the fifteenth century onwards. Inscriptions on extant Italian albarelli show that their primary use was in spice stores or hospital pharmacies [2]. The immediate origin of the form was Islamic, and one of the earliest extant examples, from thirteenth century, now in the Ashmolean, is illustrated below [EA1956.178]. None of the surviving Islamic albarelli are inscribed, and the only piece of Islamic ceramic bearing the name of a substance [3] is a fourteenth century Syrian jar of a very different form.

    Hence, although they were almost certainly used for storage, it is impossible to be more precise about their likely contents. Ultimately the shape probably goes back to an Egyptian precious metal form of the Roman period. The Arabic inscription on the shoulder of this albarello makes no sense but appears to be derived from the inscriptions of good wishes so common on medieval Islamic objects (nos. 13-14 [EAX.1302 & EA1956.36]). The verticality of the albarello is emphasised by the stripes on the body, while the band around the lower body balances the horizontal bands necessitated by the shoulder and short neck. The finely-painted underglaze black and the washes of underglaze blue provide a delightful combination of precision and movement for the design as a whole.

    [Footnotes:]
    2. Examples of Italian albarelli may be seen in the Ashmolean Museum's collection of Maiolica; see also T. Wilson, Maiolica [,] Ashmolean Museum (Oxford 1989) nos. 3 and 22.
    3. naufar, a water-lily, and hence a medical preparation from the plant, see Louisiana Revy 27 no. 3 March 1987 no. 142.
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