Francesco Xanto Avelli, who came originally from Rovigo in the Veneto but worked for many years in Urbino, is the great eccentric among the Urbino school of istoriato maiolica painters. Between 1530 and 1542 he signed, dated, and wrote ambitious explanatory tags on numerous pieces, enabling us to follow the development of his work over that period, especially the first five years of it, in detail. He also had literary aspirations: in the 1530s he wrote a sonnet sequence in praise of Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino, which survives in an elegant fair copy among the Urbino manuscripts in the Vatican Library. Yet although one can learn a good deal about his interests and his reading, and although more has been written about him than about any other maiolica painter, little is known about his life.
The first concrete information so far discovered about Xanto dates from 1530, when he appears in Urbino mentioned in a notarial document relating to an attempt by a group of pottery workers (interlaboratores artis figuli), who had formed a kind of trade union attempting to raise their wage rates. The first of Xanto's definite signed works is a plate dated 1530 commemorating the coming of the new year 1531; it is signed .f.X.A.R. and marked î Urbino. About the same time he married a woman called Finalissa in Urbino. Over the next five years he produced a large quantity of work, signed in various forms, dated, and marked as made in Urbino. This consistency in signing pieces was quite unprecedented, and may be in some way connected with his being blacklisted by leading workshop owners after the 1530 labor dispute. After 1535 he seems to have become somewhat less prolific, signed more cursorily or not at all, and had associates and followers more regularly working with him and basing their style on his. In 1541 he initialed a piece marked as made in the workshop of Francesco de Silvano in Urbino and is recorded to have taken on two assistants. No later documentary record of him is known, and no work bearing a later date is convincingly attributed to him.
The identification of Xanto's earlier work has been the subject of intensive scholarly debate. There are no unambiguously signed works dated earlier than 1530, although the weight of opinion is that unsigned works dating back to 1524 are also by him. There is no tangible evidence as to where they were made, but scholars have proposed both Faenza and Urbino. It is to be hoped that further archival discoveries may in due course resolve the issue. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Fortnum 1873, 344-350.
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