The British Museum has acquired a drug jar dating back to the early sixteenth century. It was donated to the public through the Cultural Gifts Scheme set up by the British government.
Known as an albarello (Italian for drug jar), the item dates to c.1510-30 and is believed to have been made in Siena for the Monastery of Santa Chiara in the close-by town of Massa Marittima. The front of the jar shows a woman in profile amidst finely rendered grotesque decoration consisting of masks, garlands and scrollwork – a preeminent expression of sixteenth-century decorative fashions. The cylindrical form of the jar together with the prominent inscription GALVZA PESTA at the front indicate that it was probably used for storing powdered oak galls in the monastery’s pharmacy.
The albarello will be united with its sister piece, and an extensive collection of Italian Renaissance tin-glazed earthenware at the British Museum. Both jars were originally part of a larger set of pharmacy jars, of which twelve examples survived. With this gift, ten are now held by public museums across Europe, in France, Germany, and Italy, as well as the United Kingdom.
They stand out among surviving albarelli because of their considerable size, rare straight-handled form and their membership to a known set. Though the set has been dispersed, it remains the most extensive body of jars from a single workshop and pharmacy to survive from the early sixteenth century.
The Arts Council announced the donation earlier this year, with the item allocated to the British Museum in honour of Dr Dora Thornton, former Curator of Renaissance Europe and the Waddesdon Bequest. Following acceptance and allocation of the gift, the donor company’s director, Sam Fogg, explained “I am very pleased to have been able, through the Cultural Gifts scheme, to present this outstanding maiolica albarello to the British Museum, in honour of Dora Thornton and in tribute to her scholarship and her ability to communicate her knowledge to both specialist and wider audiences. Especially notable in the context of this gift is Dora’s remarkable catalogue, co-authored with Timothy Wilson, of the British Museum’s world-class maiolica collections, which has become an essential resource for all of us who love and study these beautiful ceramics.”
Caroline Dinenage, the British government’s Arts Minister, added, “Thanks to the Cultural Gift Scheme, this outstanding object will find a fitting new home at the British Museum, where it will be enjoyed by millions each year and honour the work of a former curator.”