Della Robbia Exhibition Review

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence

Although their founder Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) was much praised in his lifetime and after, for his artistic mastery, as well as for his innovative approach to new techniques, the Della Robbia dynasty of sculptors have never really been taken as seriously as their great Florentine contemporaries, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea del Verrocchio or Jacopo Sansovino. Among the various reasons for this is the very nature of the brightly-coloured glazed terracotta sculpture which became their hallmark. As a technique, it comes half-way between ceramics and sculpture, so for many people is neither the one nor the other, whilst it can also too easily be condemned as gaudy and popularising. Perhaps our view of the Della Robbia remains to some extent affected by the twentieth century’s violent prejudice against the certainties and tastes of its nineteenth-century forebears. In nineteenth-century Britain and America, the Della Robbia were immensely popular, their work striking a strong chord with pious Victorians. The donation in 1882 by the American collector Henry Marquand to the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a large altarpiece by Luca’s son Andrea (1435-1525) led to a lifelong fascination with the work of the Della Robbia on the part of Marquand’s son Allan (1853-1924), whose eight volumes of catalogues of the Della Robbia’s work remain to this day the most important modern reference work on the sculptors.

There has however been a welcome revival in recent years of interest in the Della Robbia. In 1980 John Pope-Hennessy published a useful monograph on Luca della Robbia, whilst in 1992 the Italian scholar Giancarlo Gentilini provided us with an outstanding monograph on the Della Robbia and their followers and rivals, the Buglioni. Gentilini went on to organise two major exhibitions on the Della Robbia, to which new generations of young Italian scholars contributed, and which both benefited from new programmes of scientific research, much of it carried out at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence under the leadership of the late Maria Grazia Vaccari. This led to further programmes of research in collaboration between French and Italian laboratories and a good exhibition in the Della Robbia in French collections, curated by Marc Bourmand and held in Nice and Sèvres in 2002.

It is perhaps a little surprising, given the early interest in the Della Robbia in the Anglo-Saxon world, that the present show should be the first ever monographic exhibition on their work in America. Marietta Cambareri’s beautiful show is however an eloquent and convincing demonstration of why, at its best, the glazed terracotta work of Luca della Robbia and his descendants is worthy of greater attention than it has tended to receive. The exhibition opened in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was given three works by the Della Robbia on its opening in 1876 and subsequently acquired others, making it today one of the most important collections of their work in North America. In Boston the exhibition was shown in a single room, whereas the more spacious installation in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (where this reviewer saw it) meant that exhibits were spread across six separate spaces. Juxtapositions between the sculptures were carefully thought-out and they were beautifully displayed and lit. 

The first room introduced the key members of the Della Robbia dynasty, Luca, his nephew Andrea, and Andrea’s son Giovanni (1469-1529/30). As you walked up the West Sculpture Hall of the National Gallery of Art, you were as it were invited in by Giovanni della Robbia’s huge tympanum depicting the Resurrectionfrom the Brooklyn Museum, made in the early 1520s for the Antinori family in Florence (main image). This striking work, in some respects the great discovery of the exhibition, had been taken off display and half-forgotten some years ago in Brooklyn, but was conserved for the exhibition. Its astonishingly vibrant colours formed a complete contrast to the other sculptures in the first room, which were all made with the more usual white glaze applied to the figures, against a blue background. Also newly conserved was an enormous allegorical roundel of Prudence by Andrea della Robbia, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the double-faced figure of the Virtue set in a roundel, framed by a superb garland frieze of fruits and flowers. Three smaller reliefs of the Virgin and Child and the Nativity, all attributed to Luca, were displayed on the opposite wall. They served to demonstrate the challenges in distinguishing the work of Luca from that of Andrea; indeed, what should be called Luca? The ethereal Virgin and Childfrom the Bargello, from the early 1440s, seemed a world apart from the slightly stiff sculpture of the same subject from the Toledo Museum of Art, attributed to Luca or to Andrea, but dated some twenty years later. Luca’s Nativity from Boston demonstrated, as did the Prudence, the sophisticated way in which larger reliefs were modelled in closely interlocking sections, which were assembled after firing.

The exhibition eschewed a chronological approach, instead focusing on types of representation. Thus in the next room, the West Garden Court, were placed three three-dimensional sculptures, first among them Andrea della Robbia’s portrait of a boy from the Bargello, in its masterly naturalism at least the equal of Desiderio da Settignano’s famous marble busts of young children. It provided the prelude to the greatest masterpiece in the exhibition, Luca della Robbia’s sublime life-size group of The Visitation, lent from the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia. Just to see this great sculpture, newly conserved and sympathetically shown against a plain niche background, would justify a trip to Washington. The Virgin Mary and Saint Elizabeth embrace gently, the older woman on her knees, the psychological interaction between the innocent young girl and the elderly Elizabeth intensely moving. TheVisitation was placed at a crossing point between galleries, so that you could go from it into the early or the later Venetian galleries or, of course, into the next room in the exhibition. Entitled ‘Blue, White and Beyond’, this looked at the workshop’s trademark work in white, usually against blue backgrounds, and to issues of replication. 

Versions of two of Luca’s most beautiful compositions, the Madonna of the Lilies and the Madonna of the Niche, were shown next to each other, providing fascinating comparisons. Whilst it would in principle, be relatively easy to make virtually identical multiple examples of a model, once a master mould had been prepared, it remains unclear to what extent the Della Robbia actually did this, even with such apparently routine sections as friezes. The two versions of the Madonna of the Lilies clearly differed in a number of respects, whilst only the central figure group from the two Madonnas of the Niche seemed to have come out of the same mould. Other outstanding works in the room included a gently polychromed statue of the seated Virgin and Child from the Oratory of San Tommaso Aquino in Florence, in which the interplay of the mother’s and the child’s hands is especially sensitively modelled. Also the small altarpiece with Andrea della Robbia’s Adoration of the Christ Child, now in the National Gallery of Art, but in the nineteenth century one of the most treasured possessions of John Ruskin, who wrote of Luca that he ‘is brightly Tuscan, with the dignity of a Greek; he has English simplicity, French grace, Italian devotion…’. In this room too we met for the first time the work of Benedetto Buglioni (1459/60-1521), who probably worked for a time in the Della Robbia workshop, before setting up as a rival in the glazed terracotta technique. 

Many of the works that Benedetto and his talented kinsman, Santi Buglioni (1494-1576), produced were long subsumed into those of the Della Robbia, although in reality they are usually stylistically quite distinct, especially those of Santi, who developed a highly individual nervous mannerist style. The final room of the exhibition is in fact dominated by three near life-size figures of saints attributed to Santi Buglioni, John of Capistrano, Bernardino of Siena and Francis (?), the latter with what is almost certainly a later head. These sculptures not only push the technique of casting large glazed terracotta figures to its limit, but are masterpieces of expressive modelling, which go well beyond the Della Robbia’s generally rather gentle style. Nevertheless, Giovanni’s bleak Pietà from the National Gallery of Art in the same room was a lesson in expressivity, a reminder that Andrea della Robbia and his sons were strong supporters of the religious reforms unleashed in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century by the Dominican preacher Fra Giovanni Savonarola. Benedetto Buglioni’s half-length bust of Saint John the Baptist demonstrated the deep sensitivity of which he was capable when at his best, whilst a charming small group by Giovanni della Robbia depicting the Christ Child meeting the Baptist in the desert exemplified more popularising trends in religious sculpture in the early sixteenth century.

Two of Andrea’s sons, Marco and Francesco, became Dominican friars themselves, although they continued to practise as sculptors in the Marches region of Italy. The exhibition does not examine the later works of Andrea’s sons, which vary considerably in quality, with the exception of a fine group of the portrait busts produced by another son, Girolamo, who moved to France to work in the service of King Francis I. Girolamo’s portrait of Francis from the Metropolitan Museum, resplendent in a feathered cap, stares across at Santi Buglioni’s three ascetic saints. These works are worlds away from Luca and Andrea’s gentle empathetic Madonnas, their positioning cleverly demonstrating how far the Della Robbia and the Buglioni had travelled in the course of a century. It was typical of the many intelligent juxtapositions that are to be found throughout this thought-provoking and immensely rewarding exhibition, which should certainly win new friends and respect for Luca della Robbia and his successors.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book by Marietta Cambareri, with contributions from Abigail Hykin and Courtney Leigh Harris, Della Robbia. Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence, Boston 2016. ISBN 9780878468416. $45.

Main image: Girolamo della Robbia, Francis I (1494-1547), King of France, 1529, glazed terracotta 44.5cm., Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George Blumenthal, 1941 (photo: courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington)

‘Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence’, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA, 5 February – 4 June 2017.

Aurora Corio