Della Robbia, simply Renaissance

In Renaissance Italy, art was a form of advertising, pushing hopes and emotions as much as things. Allegorical images — Temperance, Justice, Charity — on urban facades promoted civic pride and obedience. In churches, sculptural angels offered getaway deals to heaven. Home icons of the Virgin and Child taught that salvation lay not in riches but in fruitfulness, patience and a good-night kiss.

One of the most innovative art-as-advertising firms in late-15th- and early-16th-century Florence was the Della Robbia workshop, a family concern that prospered for three long-lived generations. Its specialty was a brand of glazed terra-cotta sculpture that was physically durable, graphically strong and technologically inimitable. In fact, the exact methods for producing it remain a mystery to this day.

That the work could be dramatically beautiful was also a major attraction, though one nearly forgotten once the della Robbia style had gone out of fashion in the 16th century and then into overproduction with a Victorian revival.

Luca, the art dynasty’s founder, was accustomed to praise. In 1436, when Luca was in his mid-30s, Leon Battista Alberti ranked him one of the five most inventive Florentines, along with Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Masaccio. At the time, Luca was coming off the triumph of his “Cantoria,” a set of carved marble panels of singing children done for the organ loft of the Florence cathedral. What Alberti couldn’t know was that Luca would soon shift from sculpting figures in stone to molding them in clay, and with that to even greater fame.

Why did he make the move? We can only guess. He admired Donatello, whose zephyr-soft marble relief “Madonna of the Clouds” was clearly a model for his own later work. And maybe admiration was a problem, leading the younger Luca to go with a medium that none, or few, of his colleagues had claimed.

Maybe he was drawn to that medium’s versatility. With terra-cotta, he could create stand-alone objects but also decorative environments. He could make art that was sculptural or, with color added, painterly. His basic materials —earth and water— were cheap. With molds, he could reproduce and customize successful images, cultivating a bifocal market, elitist and popular. And by using a medium no one else was interested in, he could invent an instantly recognizable brand.

Luca establishes a formal look that will be his signature: naturalistic figures covered in a creamy-white glaze that glows like moist skin and projects an impression of purity. The flawless coating also helps disguise the fact that these sculptures, which looks so completely of a piece, was too large to be fired whole in a kiln, and was composed in four sections, which can still be disassembled and then seamlessly interlocked.

Luca went on to accept more and more prestigious commissions in Florence itself, many of them high-relief depictions of the Virgin and Child for private altarpieces. In them, white predominates; in that sense, he hadn’t moved far from marble after all. But colors also come in, notably a rich cerulean, filling backgrounds and enlivening eyes. And this chromatic trend expanded among his successors in the workshop, beginning with his nephew, Andrea Della Robbia (1435-1525).

A major talent, up there with Luca, Andrea tackled everything in the Della Robbia catalog from monumental architectural ornaments to intimate bust-length images of saints and children as detailed and vivacious as snapshots. He had plenty of opportunity to observe children firsthand; he had 12 of his own, five of whom became artists.

Of these, Giovanni Della Robbia (1469-1529/30) was especially adventurous. In his hands, the house style turned expressionistic. His lunette of the “Resurrection of Christ,” made for an entrance gate to the villa of the Antinori family outside Florence, is densely colored, action-packed and gripped by a mood of barely contained panic.

With Giovanni, we’re into Mannerist operatics, also evident in an immense arched-shaped frieze depicting the “Lamentation of Christ.” The Della Robbia love of Classical symmetry is in effect, with twin angels floating around and a manicured garland of fruits and flowers framing the scene.

A young John Ruskin professed to hate the Della Robbia style as vulgarly populist, but when, later, a splendid “Adoration of the Child” panel by Andrea came his way, he changed his tune. An art that he had once disparaged as sentimental, he now found universal in its appeal. In his writing he advertised it as such, declaring the work “delightful to the truest lovers of art in all nations and all ranks,” and calling his own Della Robbia “one of the most precious things I have.”

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