For over a hundred years study of the work of the superlative maiolica artist who signed himself "Nicola da Urbino" was vitiated by a quite unwarrented assumption that he was the same man as Nicolò Pellipario of Castel Durante, the documented father of Guido Durantino. Recent archival research has demolished this theory and demonstrated beyond much doubt that his real name was Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe (or Sbraga) and that his work was done mainly if not entirely in Urbino.
The first mention of Nicola di Gabriele Sbraghe in hitherto published documents is in Urbino in 1520, when "Magister Nicola Gabrielis figulus" was witness to a will in the San Paolo district, the main potters' quarter of Urbino. Thereafter he reappears in a series of documents in the notarial archives of Urbino, always described as a potter and evidently fairly successful. Among those who appear alongside him in these documents are Guido di Nicolò of Castel Durante (the potter Guido Durantino) and Giovanni Maria Mariani, who is probably identifiable with Giovanni Maria. In 1530 Nicola and a group of other Urbino workshop owners combined to oppose an attempt to raise wage rates made by a group of craftsmen that included Francesco Xanto Avelli. Nicola died around the winter of 1537/1538, whereupon his widow Girolama leased his workshop and equipment to Vincenzo, son of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli of Gubbio.
The documents reveal little about the artistic side of Nicola di Gabriele's business or how large his workshop was, but he is the only figulus (potter) of the name prominent in Urbino documents in the 1520s and 1530s, and there is no serious doubt about the identification. Study of his work is based on five works bearing his name written out or in monogram; all of these are entirely covered with narrative (istoriato) painting. The inscriptions on two of these dishes show that Nicola was himself a painter of istoriato, and from these marked works a coherent piece of his artistic development has been built up. His greatest achievements are three substantial sets, which are unsigned but generally agreed to be by one hand. The earliest of these is among the earliest identified istoriato maiolica made in Urbino, consisting of seventeen pieces. A little later than this is what must have been one of the most prestigious commissions of the 1520s, an armorial set made for the great collector Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua. A third set, very similar in style but slightly less exquisitely executed, was made about the same time for a member of the Calini family of Brescia. By the early to mid-1530s, when Nicola appears to have undertaken another commission for an important client--Isabella's son Frederico Gonzaga, duke of Mantua--much of the elegance has gone out of the work; it seems likely that these later works are the result of collaboration with assistants. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Fortnum 1873, 322-329.
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