Nicolò da Urbino

(Italian; b. ca. 1480–d. 1537 or 1538)

Plate with an Allegorical Scene of Calliope and a Youth (from the Ladder Service)

c. 1525–28

tin-glazed earthenware
H: 1 ½ x D: 10 ¼ in (H: 4 x D: 26.2 cm)

William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Nicolò da Urbino is arguably the finest maiolica painter of the sixteenth century and is credited with establishing the classic Renaissance style of istoriato (story-painted). His known works originate from Urbino, where he was maestro of his own shop, and date from about 1520 to his death.  His style is known for its precision, strong palette, and fanciful architectural elements such as the detailed background of this footed dish. Like fellow maiolica painter Francesco Xanto Avelli, Nicolò borrowed content from mythology and poetry and copied scenes from contemporary prints.

Nicolò’s success is evidenced by the number of armorial services he produced for distinguished families. The Corcoran’s plate comes from the Ladder Service, named for the crest with ladder over the column. The patron of the service is uncertain but was perhaps the Calini family of Brescia. The plate depicts Calliope, muse of poetry, crowning a boy with wisdom while a gentleman in oriental garb determines the boy’s horoscope.  The book at Calliope’s foot contains a verse from Virgil. Some scholars have suggested that the plate was commissioned for the birth of Luigi Calini’s first son, but lack of confirmed dates for the birth and the service makes it impossible to verify. Ten other plates from the service remain, all depicting a variety of allegorical, religious, and mythological subjects.