Della Robbia Terra Cotta Defines Renaissance

BOSTON, MASS.- Powerful expressions of faith, hope and love are manifested in brilliant colors that characterize the Della Robbia glazed terracotta sculptures from the Renaissance, explored in an exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence is the first major exhibition in the US dedicated to Della Robbia sculptures, which have endured for more than 500 years. Their shine and colors, including deep cerulean blues and opaque whites, remain unchanged from the time of their creation—a lasting testament to Renaissance ingenuity.

Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) invented the groundbreaking glazing technique in the 15th century, and the exhibition showcases 46 works of art by his family and associated workshops.

The Visitation (about 1445, Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia), an extraordinary masterpiece, is one of six important loans from Italy that have never been seen in the US before. The Brooklyn Museum’s lunette of the Resurrection of Christ (about 1520–24) is presented at the MFA following a year-long conservation project—one of several undertaken for the exhibition.

After debuting at the MFA in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery from August 9–December 4, 2016, the exhibition travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington from February 5–June 4, 2017.

Della Robbia Family Studio

The Della Robbia family workshop flourished in Florence for about a century, producing expressive artworks for all spheres of life. Luca della Robbia created his glazed terracotta technique in the 15th century, and it was immediately recognized and celebrated as a new invention.

He shared its secrets with his nephew and principal collaborator Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), who in turn passed them on to his sons Giovanni (1469– 1529/30), Luca the Younger (1475–1548), Marco (1468–1534), Francesco (1477–1527/28) and Girolamo (1488–1566). Portraying both sacred and secular themes, Della Robbia sculpture gained a strong presence in public spaces—from street corners to churches—and private homes.

“Della Robbia sculpture is a quintessentially Florentine Renaissance art form, one that seems to transport us to the 15th-century city,” said Marietta Cambareri, Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture and Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica, Art of Europe, who organized the exhibition. “Praised in its own day as ‘almost eternal,’ and seen as a new invention not known in antiquity."

The exhibition begins with works made for domestic settings, exploring notions of hope and prosperity for one’s city and family.

Della Robbia sculpture was often acquired to mark significant family events such as marriages and births, and the objects became part of the lives and histories of their owners.

Antinori Commission

Giovanni della Robbia’s brightly colored lunette of the Resurrection of Christ (about 1520–24, Brooklyn Museum) once adorned the upper section of a garden gate in the Tuscan villa of the Florentine Antinori family, who commissioned it in the early 16th century. The family’s coat of arms marks the lower corners of the 11-footwide relief, and the Marchese Antinori—possibly Niccolò or his son Alessandro—is prominently shown praying before the resurrected Christ.

The sculpture is composed of 46 separate pieces and underwent a year-long conservation treatment in preparation for the exhibition, with generous support from the current generation of the Antinori family. The relief, now restored to its original splendor, has not left Brooklyn since it was donated to the museum in 1898.

The Visitation

The extraordinary loan of Luca della Robbia’s The Visitation (about 1445), shown above, —his masterpiece in the medium he invented—travels to Boston from the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, shown in the US for the first time.

The sculptural group of two figures anchors the second section of the exhibition, which highlights expressions of love—especially the bond between mother and child. It presents an intensely moving interaction between Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist.

The Visitation was widely reproduced in the 20th century—there were at least six casts in American collections by 1910, including one in the Renaissance cast gallery at the MFA’s original Copley Square building. The work also attracted at least one American artist of the time—John Singer Sargent made a sketch of the sculpture, probably from the original group in Pistoia.
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Several Madonna and Child reliefs, by far the most common form of domestic sculpture in the Renaissance, are on view. Particularly fine examples come from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the National Gallery of Art and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

An important loan of a relatively unknown work by Luca, the large-scale Madonna and Child (about 1450–60) from the Oratory of San Tommaso Aquino in Florence, demonstrates his mastery of a wider range of colors than the classic blue and white, showing that his primary use of the two colors in other works was an artistic choice.

Experimentation with Color

Andrea della Robbia generally followed his uncle’s choice of blue and white, but his Mother of Sorrows (about 1525, Saint Louis Art Museum) demonstrates his exploration of an expanded palette to enhance the emotion expressed in the face and mourning gesture of Mary.

The sculpture, meant to evoke a sympathetic response, is thought to be part of a group that included the body of Jesus as the focus of Mary’s grief. A monumental piece by Andrea della Robbia, Prudence (about 1475), a personification of one of the cardinal virtues, features an abundance of greens and yellows in a particularly impressive garland filled with grapes, pinecones, cucumbers, lemons and a variety of other fruits. The roundel has been restored by conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who have reconfigured the garland based on its original sequence, discovered during the project.

In addition to further experimentation with color, other works show the Della Robbia leaving sections of clay unglazed. The flesh of both Mary and Jesus represented in Giovanni della Robbia’s Pietà (about 1510–1520, National Gallery of Art) is rendered in unglazed terracotta, making the sculpture less brilliant in appearance and thereby more somber and appropriate for its religious function, helping to inspire contemplation.

Terracotta Decline

The use of glazed terracotta declined in the 16th century, as marble and bronze became the preferred materials for sculpture, but the medium experienced a renaissance during the 19th century.

Isabella Stewart Gardner, for example, acquired two Della Robbia works in the process of furnishing her Venetian-style palazzo in Boston. One of them, a Sacramental Tabernacle (1470s, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) attributed to Andrea della Robbia, is on view in the exhibition.

American collectors who could not locate or afford original Della Robbias instead bought fine reproductions, made in Florentine ceramic factories that had developed a technique that mimicked the pure, opaque colors and hard, shiny surfaces characteristic of the original Renaissance works. The Virgin Adoring the Child (about 1910), modeled after a work by Andrea della Robbia, was made by the Cantagalli workshop in Florence and purchased in Italy around 1912 by a family in Massachusetts.