A collection of majolica pharmacy jars at the Museum of the Order of St John

Museum of the Order of St John Alberto Filippo Rapisarda, Collections Volunteer

From 15th April 2019 to 17th May 2019 Alberto Filippo Rapisarda, a student at the University of Udine in Italy, undertook a thorough investigation of the Museum’s collection of majolica pharmacy jars. The resulting research has greatly improved the documentation of this important part of the Museum’s collection, and has also raised a number of intriguing questions.

The Museum of Order of St John has a collection of thirty majolica pharmacy jars, most of them purchased between the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the jars are on display and a few are preserved in storage at the Museum.

The same majolica pharmacy jar (3529) photographed from three different angles.

The pharmacy jars had been catalogued in the Museum’s database with essential information (name, short description, acquisition notes). So, an analytical review of the catalogue was necessary. The jars studied have these object numbers: 3501, 3502, 3503, 3510, 3511, 3512, 3513, 3514, 3515, 3516, 3517, 3518, 3519, 3520, 3522, 3523, 3524, 3525, 3526, 3527, 3528, 3529, 3530, 3531, 3532, 3533, 3580, 3581.

During the five week internship the main training activities have been:

  • object handling;
  • museum-standard photography;
  • object documentation (measurements, descriptions etc.);
  • condition reporting;
  • research, including provenance;
  • research trips to identify related and comparative items in UK collections;
  • written interpretation.

The goals have been the following:

  • to create a complete catalogue of the Museum’s collection of majolica pharmacy jars, including photography and identified relevant research and literature;
  • to write, in English and Italian, a summary of the project and a summary of star items for the Museum’s website.

The internship’s activities lasted five weeks. The tutor of the Institution was Abigail Cornick and the tutor of the University of Udine was Maurizio D’Arcano Grattoni.

The work at the Museum was preceded by a period of specific studies that concern ceramics and majolica in the most important Italian libraries and museums.

The first activity was a visual reconnaissance of the jars on display and a check of the existing records on the database. Temporary photographs were taken to do a first comparison with several pharmacy jars preserved in the most famous museums of the world, published in important research papers and on the online catalogues.

During the second activity, detailed photographs of all the vases were taken in the main positions: front, back, right/left side, high/ low side. Numerous stylistic details were also photographed to use them for the next step. The pictures were taken using a professional set with lights and white background.

Majolica pharmacy jar number 3527 photographed from three different angles.

At the same time it was also to possible see and check each jar closely, including new condition reporting and measurements (length, width, diameter rim, diameter base, circumference). The new information was recorded in a temporary file and later uploaded on the database.

Then the main project’s work started: the scientific research for each jar about dates, provenance, style and interpretation. The main resources used during this step were the following:

It was also possible to consult specific literature at the National Art Library.

A meeting with Dr Dora Thornton, Professor Timothy Wilson and Dr Jeremy Warren was also very important: we reasoned together about some remarkable questions.

At the end of this study some vases of particular prestige and quality have also been identified in the Museum’s collection.

However a lot of problems remain open. It is necessary to ask many other questions about this collection. In particular:

  • the workshop provenance of some jars;
  • other comparisons to confirm the new interpretations about styles and dates;
  • the relationship between the jars and the Museum’s history;
  • extensive studies on old catalogue and on acquisition books;
  • extensive studies about purchasers;
  • extensive studies about authors.
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