Ceramics and Society: A Social and Cultural History of European Ceramics, 1500–1900

This seminar explores the evolution of ceramic techniques and materials within the wider contexts of economic, social, and cultural life. We will study the role of ceramics as objects of global trade, as agents of cultural exchange and taste formation, as bearers of social and ideological meanings, and vessels of cultural memory. It will tell multiple stories about people, politics, markets, the changing nature of labor and consumption, and patterns of domestic and social life.

The course will follow the flourishing of earthenware traditions: of tin-glaze, which spread from medieval Persia, via Islamic Spain, to the maiolica painters of sixteenth-century Italy, and their role in disseminating Renaissance ideals of beauty, courtly manners, and new dining rituals; to German stoneware and its role within the Reformation household; and to the French experimentalist philosopher-potter, Bernard Palissy, who used his faience inventions to investigate the natural world. The story of the European rediscovery and development of porcelain will also be a central theme. It is a transnational story of competing EuroAsian trade networks, of colonial conquest, and its place in a network of other commodities and consumption patterns that enabled its spread, such as sugar, coffee, and tea. It is also a story of alchemists and scientists, of aristocratic obsession, of middle class entrepreneurship, and of the gradual transformation of a mercantile economy to new forms of capitalist production and marketing. The course will follow porcelain’s rediscovery at Meissen in the early eighteenth century, the establishment of state manufactories like Sèvres and Vienna, the independent producers like Chelsea and Wedgwood in England, to the full industrialization of companies such as Minton in the nineteenth century. It will show how the medium was transformed from an aristocratic ornament into a bourgeois necessity, and explore issues of design and mass marketing, and the often grim conditions of factory labor that underlay the bright sheen of their surfaces. 3 credits. Satisfies the chronological requirement.