The original porcelain company in the Capo di Monte area of Italy was established in 1743 by Charles of Bourbon. He was then king of Naples and was trying to replicate the burgeoning success of the Meissen Porcelain Company in Saxony, now Germany, and of the Sevres porcelain company in France.
The secret of hard porcelain had been closely held by the Chinese and Japanese for centuries. Porcelain wares reached Europe by way of the Silk Road, and then through the hands of successive sea powers. Due to the transportation costs and losses during the trip, the porcelain was so expensive by the time it reached Europe that only the rich and powerful could afford it. However, various European scientists and chemists worked to discover the secret. Businesses appeared and had varying degrees of success throughout Europe. Each time, the secrets of the clay and glaze were kept secret, so each new attempt had to start from scratch to discover the right clay body, glazes and firing procedures to made the highly desirable hard paste porcelain.
Many of the efforts to establish porcelain factories were sponsored or financed by royalty. The company that succeeded would repay its financier in both porcelain products to use at court and to give as gifts as well as returning cash. There was now chance of any one European company producing enough porcelain to flood the market, so each try at starting a porcelain manufacturing company was worth the risk.
Charles of Bourbon’s factory produced fine dinnerware and ornaments for 64 years before economics forced its closure. A second porcelain company founded under the royal patronage of Ferdinand IV existed from 1771 to 1806. This factory used a trade mark of a crown over a capital N in blue glaze. Capodimonte refers to the region of Italy where the porcelain factories were located, Capo di Monte, which translates as head of the mountain. Other factories have come and gone since, in the same area, producing similar wares and using variations on the crown mark. Therefore there are over 200 years of porcelain products with the “Capodimonte” name, some better than others, and only an expert can tell the source of most of them.
Because of this constantly changing landscape of makers and the large number of pieces, marked and unmarked, the term “Capodimonte” has some to be a style rather than a specific maker. Capodimonte is recognized by the flowers, lace, ribbons and cherubs that so frequently adorn it. Roses, fully open and buds, in several colors are a regular feature of Capodimonte porcelain. Each petal is formed by hand and placed on the base piece. Others are placed next to the first, and are colored with medium strength glazes, giving the flowers good color against the white body after firing. Sometimes, whole areas may be covered by roses, as in a chair with a seat full of roses. Human figurines are frequently shown in 18th and 19th century costumes, especially those that include lace. The lace parts of costumes are made by using real lace dipped in slip. When the piece is fired, the lace burns away, but the lace form and shape is retained in the porcelain. Cherubs (putti) also appear on these pieces, as do types of fruit. Eventually, the flowers grew larger and became the porcelain figurine, so Capodimonte also includes botanical representations of many types of roses and other flowers, like lilies, iris and poinsettias. These flowers are closer to life-size, and the figurine may include butterflies or small birds.
And, to come full circle, porelain pieces in the Capodimonte style are now being produced in China, and have given rise to a new classification in porcelain: Chinese Capodimonte. So, when you see candlelabra and compotes with flowers and putti, and Capodimonte comes to mind, remember that the quality of the piece must speak for itself, and the actual place of manufacture may be Italy, or nearly anywhere in the world. If you are going to collect a specific manufacturer or period of Capodimonte, you will have to rely on expert opinion until you become an expert yourself. Choose a place to start and see where your collecting takes you. At least you can probabl;y get a trip to Naples out of it.