Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Dish (piatto): Man Washing the Mouth of an Ass

ca. 1550–60
Italian, Deruta
Maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware)
Diam. 15 13/16 in. (40.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
Not on view
Maiolica is the term given to the refined, white-glazed pottery of the Italian Renaissance. The white, opaque glaze results from the presence of tin-oxide; the glazed surface is smooth and shiny, but not brilliant. In the sixteenth century, workshop procedures applied a second, clear glaze to majolica objects, which produced a brilliantly shiny surface and enhanced the color decoration. The twice-fired painted earthenware was adorned with a final layer of painting in compounds containing silver or copper, then fired again and burnished to an iridescent sheen. Florence led the way in the manufacture of majolica but, by the sixteenth century, production of this precious pottery had proliferated in other regions.

The small town of Deruta in central Italy produced wares noted for a harmony of shape and ornamentation combined with impressive decorative effect. This large plate carries a lively genre subject. A donkey, seated in a chair with a towel around his neck, is having his head scrubbed, a reference to a moralizing medieval Italian proverb: "E inutile lavare la testa all'asino" ("It is useless to wash an ass's head."). The inscription on the chair, "Chi lava el ch[a]po a l'asen[o] se perderanno el sapone," (He who washes an ass's head wastes the soap) tells of the wasteful, worthless task of this hapless soul.
Inscription: [on the side of the chair] CHILAVA / ELCHPO / A LASEN / SE PERDE / ERANNO E / LSAPONE
Inscribed: Chi lava el chpo al asen se perdeeranno el sapone (He who washes the head of an ass wastes the soap.)
Alfred Israel Pringsheim, Munich, later Zurich (1850-1941); sale*, Sotheby's, London, July 19, 1939, lot 247; [Julius Goldschmidt, London, for Lehman]; acquired by Robert Lehman through Goldschmidt Galleries, New York, 1939. *Alfred Pringsheim was a German Jewish collector. During Kristallnacht, in November 1938, the SS seized Pringsheim’s majolica collection from his home in Munich. It was stored in the annex to the Bayerishches National Museum, Munich. In March 1939, the German Ministry of Trade authorized export of Pringsheim's majolica collection to London for auction at Sotheby's, provided that 80% of the proceeds up to £ 20,000 and 70% of the remainder be paid to the German Gold Discount Bank in foreign currency. Pringsheim was to receive the remaining proceeds. In exchange, Pringsheim and his wife were allowed to emigrate to Switzerland. See Timothy Wilson, "Alfred Pringsheim and his Collection of Italian Maiolica," in Otto von Falke, Die Majolikasammlung Alfred Pringsheim, augmented reprint with articles by Tjark Hausman, Carmen Ravanelli-Guidotti and Timothy Wilson, Ferrara 1994, vol. 3, pp. 85-87. After the war, the Pringsheim heirs received restitution of the sale proceeds paid to the Reichsbank pursuant to a settlement agreement with the German government. Minutes of a closed session of the Reparation Claims Office I for Upper Bavaria, Munich, March 11, 1955.
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