by Roderick Conway Morris

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Della Robbia: A Story of Invention and Immortality

By Roderick Conway Morris
AREZZO 15 May 2009
Santa Maria Nuova, Florence
Madonna and Child Holding a Little Bird, 1470-75
by Andrea della Robbia



Leon Battista Alberti assured immortality for Luca della Robbia by naming him, along with Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti and Masaccio, in the prologue to his landmark treatise 'On Painting' of 1436, as a pioneer of what was later to be called the Renaissance.

Luca's 'invention' of a method of creating tin-glazed terra cotta sculptures – rendering them, in Vasari's words, 'almost eternal' – was hailed as a major scientific and artistic discovery. And it was all the more important because here was 'a new art, useful and very beautiful' that was not known to the Ancients.

The story of the della Robbia studio, founded by Luca and continued by his nephew, Andrea, and Andrea's siblings and children, is vividly and colorfully illustrated by more than 130 exhibits in 'The Della Robbia: The Dialogue between the Arts in the Renaissance,' expertly curated by Giancarlo Gentilini with the assistance of Liletta Fornasari. (Further works by the della Robbia studio can be found in situ in churches in Arezzo and in the surrounding countryside.)

Luca's was an age of experimentation as well as a revival of antique skills. Brunelleschi was largely responsible for the rediscovery of terra cotta as an art form in Florence, and others, notably Donatello, followed his lead. But, although highly flexible and expressive, terra cotta was a fragile medium and as an architectural adornment vulnerable to weather.

The imaginative leap that Luca made was to marry painting and sculpture in a novel fashion to create a new product durable enough to be placed on the exterior of buildings and resist the elements, and sufficiently luminous – many of his Madonna and Child sculptures, for example, were pure white high-reliefs against cobalt blue backgrounds – to shine even in poorly lit churches and other interiors.

The maiolica technique Luca adapted had been used in Italy for at least two centuries to manufacture household ceramics. It had been imported from the Islamic world and Luca would have been familiar with accounts of Oriental buildings clad in maiolica tiles. Also, the decoration of Giotto's Campanile for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral included lozenges with marble sculptures set against backgrounds of blue-glazed terra cotta tiles. (Luca's first important commission was for the Cantoria, or singing gallery, for the Duomo.)

Byzantine ideas also played a role in underpinning the philosophical and religious significance of these radiant new sculptures. This was a period of intense contact and cultural exchange with the Greek East. Neoplatonic concepts, eagerly received in Florence, emphasized light as an expression of philosophical illumination, the spirit, purity and ideal beauty. Luca makes this relationship explicit in a refulgent monochrome white Madonna and Child at the Arcispedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence by placing in the Christchild's hands a scroll reading: 'Ego Sum Lux Mundi' (I am the Light of the World).

The formulas of the della Robbia glazes were a closely guarded secret, passed down through the family. Andrea, Luca's nephew, brought them to new levels of perfection. Andrea also put the studio, established by Luca in 1446 on Via Guelfa (then on the edge of the city, a suitable location given the fire risks involved) on an almost industrial footing.

The use of molds and other production-line techniques meant that pieces could be produced in substantial quantities in series. Large sculptures and groups of figures were made in sections and reassembled on arrival at their destinations. Compared with marble and bronze, terra cotta was an inexpensive material, light and therefore cheap to transport. The studio developed professional packing methods to make sure the products arrived undamaged.

Although the Madonna and Child sculptures – the best of them of captivating delicacy and grace – remained the most popular single della Robbia product, under Andrea's management the range of offerings expanded to include complex dramatic tableaux of figures, decorative architectural features, among them elaborate schemes for cupolas and vaults, family crests and coats of arms, representations of fruit, flowers, vegetation and up-market floor and wall tiles. Orders came in not only from all over Italy but also from France, Spain, Portugal, Flanders and England.

The della Robbia palette came to embrace various colors and shades. Ironically, seeing their family name derived from their dyer forebears, the 'robbia' nickname referring to the 'ruby' dye of their cloth, the technical challenges presented by firing reds defeated the Via Guelfa studio, preventing it from employing the color. (The highly skilled Venetian imitators of Iznik ceramics, too, long struggled in vain to reproduce the tomato reds of the Ottoman masters.)

The della Robbia were influenced by parallel trends in painting and sculpture but they influenced contemporary artists in turn, such as Filippo Lippi. In the 1470s, Andrea's style showed affinities to those of Antonio Rossellino and Verrocchio.

The studio took in its stride the emergence in the 1490s of Savonarola, indeed Andrea was evidently a supporter of the Domenican hell-fire preacher against materialism and luxury, with della Robbia products reflecting the new austerity. Two of Andrea's sons entered Savonarola's San Marco Convent in 1495, and continued to make tin-glazed terra cottas for the order.

The studio was outstandingly one of the most successful of the Italian Renaissance, spanning three generations and well over a century. Andrea's sons, Luca the Younger and Girolamo, took the enterprise into the era of Mannerism, absorbing the stylistic innovations of Raphael, Sansovino and Andrea del Sarto.

In 1517, Girolamo moved to France to establish a studio there, contributing to the decoration of Fontainebleau. The youngest of Andrea's sons, Girolamo died in Paris in 1566. Two years later, in his updated 'Lives of the Artists' Vasari wrote of Girolamo that 'not only did his house die out and his family become extinct, but art was deprived of the knowledge of the proper method of glazing.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024