The Gardiner Museum, just across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum, holds a superb collection of ceramics, beautifully presented and displayed over three small floors. On the main floor, the pre-Columbian section, composed of over three hundred pieces from regions stretching from Mexico to Peru, is one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in North America, providing an intriguing insight into the lifestyles and beliefs of the Maya, Inca and Aztec peoples. These finely finished vessels are all the more remarkable because the potter’s wheel was unknown in pre-Columbian America, meaning everything on display was hand-modelled. On this floor also is an exquisite sample of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century tin-glazed Italian majolica, mostly dishes, plates and jars depicting classical and Biblical themes designed by Renaissance artists. The most splendid pieces are perhaps those from the city – and pottery centre – of Urbino, including one wonderful plate portraying the fall of Jericho.
The second floor has Japanese and Chinese porcelain, plus an especially fine sample of eighteenth-century European porcelain, most notably hard-paste wares (fired at very high temperatures) from Meissen, Germany. This floor also holds a charming collection of Italian commedia dell’arte figurines, doll-sized representations of theatrical characters popular across Europe from the middle of the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. The predecessor of pantomime, the commedia dell’arte featured stock characters in improvised settings, but with a consistent theme of seduction, age and beauty: the centrepiece was always an elderly, rich merchant and his beautiful young wife. Up above, the third floor is given over to temporary exhibitions.