Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 20, 2020
Marietta Cambareri Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2016. 176 pp.; 130 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780878468416)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, August 9–December 4, 2016; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, February 5–June 4, 2017

After describing Luca della Robbia’s achievements in marble and bronze, Giorgio Vasari goes on to note

how much time he spent in making them, [and upon recognizing] that he had gained very little and that the labour had been very great, he resolved to abandon marble and bronze and to see whether he could gather better fruits from another method. Wherefore, reflecting that clay could be worked easily and with little labour, and that it was only necessary to find a method whereby works made with it might be preserved for a long time . . . after having made many experiments, he found that by covering them with a coating of glaze, made with tin, litharge, antimony, and other minerals and mixtures fused together in a special furnace, he could . . . make works in clay almost eternal. For this method of working, as being its inventor, he gained very great praise, and all the ages to come will therefore owe him an obligation. (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere [Knopf, 1996], 1:275)

Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) was forty-one years old when he created his first documented glazed terra-cotta sculpture, a tabernacle (1441–42, Santa Maria in Peretola) commissioned for the San Luca chapel of the Ospedale Santa Maria Nuova, Florence. In 1442 the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, commissioned two large lunettes, the Resurrection (1442–45) and the Ascension (1446–51), to be placed over the sacristy doors. From then Luca’s workshop began to specialize in glazed terra-cotta sculptures, and by 1451 it had grown to include his nephew Andrea (1435–1525) and later Andrea’s five sons: Giovanni (1469–1529/30), Luca the Younger (1475–1548), Girolamo (1488–1566), Francesco (1477–1527/28), and Marco (1468–1534). The workshop produced ambitious sculptures for churches and wealthy patrons and also a great number of smaller sculptures for private homes, both on commission and from stock. It is evident that the demand for Della Robbia terra-cottas was great, insofar as a rival workshop, run by Benedetto Buglioni (1459/60–1521), was established circa 1480.

Announced as the first major exhibition in the United States devoted to Della Robbia sculptures, Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, featured terra-cotta sculptures by Luca della Robbia, Andrea della Robbia, Giovanni della Robbia, Luca della Robbia the Younger, Girolamo della Robbia, Benedetto Buglioni, Santi Buglioni (1494–1576), and Giovanni Rustici (1474–1554). Thirty-nine of these works came from public and private collections in the United States and six from Italy. The exhibition, comprising five thematic sections (“Hope,” “Love,” “Faith,” “The Taste for Della Robbia Sculpture,” and “Clay, Color, Shine—the Technique of Della Robbia Sculpture”), presented the viewer with an extraordinary opportunity to consider multiple aspects of the terra-cotta sculpture of this renowned family of Florentine artists. Major themes included the adaptation of formal types, the work of the rival Buglioni family workshop, the history of modern reception, modern replication, and workshop practice.

The exhibition opened, surprisingly, not with a work by Luca, the inventor of glazed terra-cotta sculpture and the family’s workshop patriarch, but with a piece by his grandnephew, Giovanni della Robbia. This was a colorful lunette, the Resurrection of Christ, owned by the Brooklyn Museum. Curator Marietta Cambareri, in the companion catalog, delves into the 1899 acquisition of this work, purchased by A. Augustus Healy directly from the Antinori family of Florence. The purchase and its arrival in Brooklyn were heralded in national newspapers. The lunette contains the coat of arms of the Antinori family and a portrait of the Marchese Antinori, directly connecting the work with its Florentine Renaissance patron. The primacy given to the lunette in the exhibition emphasized that the show was not only about Della Robbia sculpture but also about showcasing the works that reside in American collections.

The first three themes of the exhibition, “Hope,” “Love,” and “Faith,” embody the core values of Renaissance Florence, virtues that encompass religious, civic, and familial life. The section “Hope” contained objects that were intended for display in the home. Children, the hope of the future, appeared throughout this section, taking form as both naturalistic youths and as the Christ child and young Saint John the Baptist. In the following section, “Love,” the focus turned to the reliefs of the Madonna and Child, which represent the powerful human emotion and primary virtue of Christian faith. Madonna and Child is the most popular motif of Della Robbia relief sculptures, and the series of variations displayed here offered the viewer an occasion to register how the Della Robbias adapted formal types. No two reliefs were identical, each presenting a different pose and expression. The most striking example of adaptation was evident in the two versions of the Madonna of the Niche (ca. 1448, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and ca. 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), shown side by side. The opportunity to examine these two reliefs at close distance and in direct relation allowed the viewer to distinguish the subtle differences, including in the figures’ emotional expression, represented through different gazes. However, of the works displayed, the most powerful expression of love was Luca della Robbia’s masterful The Visitation (ca. 1445, Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia), exhibited here for the first time in the United States. The two figures, nearly life-size and embracing, are rendered in a pure white glaze, with color only in the eyes. Elizabeth kneels before Mary; both their poses and their concentrated gazes underscore the great affection and humanity of their relationship.

Whereas love was the primary virtue of the faithful, the exhibition presented faith as the most necessary virtue of Florentines: faith in the salvation of one’s soul and faith in the government. In this section the younger generations of the Della Robbia and Buglioni workshops were highlighted, with their mixed use of glazed and unglazed techniques in single works of terra-cotta. Andrea della Robbia’s lunette Meeting of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic (ca. 1498, Ospedale di San Paolo, Florence) is credited as one of the first examples of combined glazed and unglazed terra-cotta in relief. While this work was not featured in the exhibition, the technique of combining glazed, unglazed, and painted terra-cotta was effectively highlighted for viewers in the soft, sensitively modeled Adoring Angel (ca. 1510–15, private collection) by Luca della Robbia the Younger. Also noteworthy were Santi Buglioni’s ambitious, nearly life-size, freestanding saints (ca. 1550), which have glazed robes with unglazed heads and hands.

The majority of the sculptures in Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence came from American museums, having been privately purchased during the collecting fervor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The section titled “The Taste for Della Robbia Sculpture” addressed the renewed interest in Italian Renaissance art in this period. John Ruskin may be credited as important in this movement. Although the English critic condemned colored sculpture as vulgar in 1840, by 1880 he had purchased Andrea della Robbia’s fully colored Adoration of the Child (The Ruskin Madonna), now in the National Gallery of Art. This work, featured in the exhibition, can be seen as a pivotal object in the shift in American taste and a growing appreciation of colored sculpture. According to the preface to Alan Marquand’s Della Robbias in America (1912), in 1902 there were nearly 1,100 extant works attributed to the Della Robbias, of which 10 were in American collections; by 1912 the number was over 70. In a subsequent series of books on the Della Robbias and the Buglionis, published from 1912 to 1928, Marquand educated American collectors on colored sculpture and heightened interest in these works. The popularity of the Della Robbias in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also triggered the production of replicas, plaster casts, and mass-market copies for people who could not find or could not afford the original works. In featuring a replica of the Adoration of the Child (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), executed by the Cantagalli Workshop circa 1910, the exhibition offered an unprecedented opportunity to compare the mass-market copy with the Della Robbia original.

“Clay, Color, Shine—the Technique of Della Robbia Sculpture” explained the process and technique for the molding and firing of the light-colored clay and the innovative composition of the glazes used to create the polychrome terra-cotta sculptures. Recent conservation discoveries, pertinent to the objects displayed, were incorporated throughout the exhibition. Conservation on The Visitation, for example, has revealed that the figures of Mary and Elizabeth were fired in four interlocking sections, set in place by gravity, without the aid of adhesives or pins. Cambareri also introduced surprising and refreshingly creative associations between the themes of the exhibition and the artistic working process. One such example relates to the section “Faith,” where the risk element of firing terra-cottas was emphasized. According to the wall text, given that the sculptures might not emerge intact, it was “essential to offer prayers before the firing process” and to “have faith that a beautiful, intact sculpture would emerge.” More broadly, “Clay, Color, Shine—the Technique of Della Robbia Sculpture” perfectly echoed Vasari’s remarks about Luca as an “inventor” who earned “very great praise, and all the ages to come will therefore owe him an obligation.”

Kerri A. Pfister
Associate Photoarchivist, Frick Collection, Frick Art Reference Library