Della Robbia

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Luca della Robbia

The Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400?-1482) is usually remembered for his singularly lovely images of the Madonna and Child in glazed terra-cotta.

Luca della Robbia was praised by his compatriot Leon Battista Alberti for genius comparable to that of the sculptors Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and the painter Masaccio. By ranking him with contemporary artists of this stature, Alberti reminds us of the interest and strength of Luca's work in marble and bronze, as well as in the terra-cottas always associated with his name.

There are no certain details of Luca della Robbia's youth, training, or early sculpture, and many of his most popular later works cannot be dated absolutely. He was born in Florence. His first documented commission, the marble Singing Gallery (1431-1438) for the Cathedral of Florence, proves that he must have been an accomplished artist long before joining the Sculptors' Guild in 1432. The Singing Gallery shows children singing, dancing, and making music to "praise the Lord" in the words of Psalm 150. Their figures are at once lively, finely observed, and gracefully combined in groups designed to fit the 10 panels of the gallery.

In the next 2 decades Luca executed important commissions in marble and bronze: a series of marble reliefs (1437) for the bell tower of the Cathedral of Florence; a marble and enameled terra-cotta tabernacle (1443), now in S. Maria in Peretola; bronze angels to enrich the Singing Gallery; and, in collaboration with Michelozzo, the large project of bronze doors for the Sacristy of the Cathedral. These doors were not finished until 1469; their reliance on a few figures placed in simple, orderly compositions against a flat ground contrasts sharply with the elaborate pictorial effects of Ghiberti's more famous Baptistery doors.

Although the data of Luca's first work in colored, glazed terra-cotta is not known, his control of this medium was clearly enough recognized to justify two major commissions for the Cathedral of Florence: the large reliefs Resurrection (1445) and Ascension of Christ (1446). The pliant medium of baked clay covered with a "slip" of vitrified lead and refined permitted a lustrous, polished surface capable of reflecting light and using color that was beautifully appropriate for architectural sculpture. Whether animating the vast, somber space of the Cathedral or in the series Twelve Apostles gracing the pristine surfaces of the small Pazzi Chapel (1443-1450) in Florence, Luca's reliefs in this medium achieved a perfection never before or since attained.

Working with assistants, including members of his own family, Luca produced a number of decorative reliefs and altarpieces until the end of his life. One of the finest and richest examples is the enameled terra-cotta ceiling (1466) of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in S. Miniato, Florence. Luca della Robbia died in Florence in February 1482.

Further Reading

Allan Marquand, Luca della Robbia (1914), remains the most important and readable monograph on the artist. The earliest account of Luca della Robbia, in Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, translated by Gaston De Vere (1914), is sympathetic but should be supplemented by Charles Seymour's more recent Sculpture in Italy, 1400-1500 (1966).

Additional Sources

Gaeta Bertela, Giovanna, Luca, Andrea, Giovanni Della Robbia, London: Constable, c. 1979.

Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham, Sir, Luca della Robbia, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. □

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Family name of three important Italian Renaissance sculptor-artists.

Luca, sculptor included by Alberti among the founders of the Italian Renaissance; b. Florence, 1399 or 1400;d. Florence, Feb. 22, 1482. He received important commissions for reliefs in marble and bronze, but is best known for his Madonnas, religious scenes, and coats-ofarms in glazed terra cotta, a technique that he invented. Nothing is known of his early work, but his later style suggests that Luca was probably trained by Nanni di Banco and perhaps took over the direction of the workshop when Nanni died in 1421. Luca's first dated work is the beautiful marble cantoria or music-loft (143138; Cathedral Museum, Florence). Its ten reliefs with putti singing and playing instruments illustrate Psalm 150. Not only the epigraphy and architectural framework but the style of the reliefs themselves bears remarkable resemblances to the antique. A change in style toward a deeper undercutting and more vigorous movement that occurred in those of the reliefs done after 143435 may be due to the influence of Donatello, who in 1433 began to contribute to the project. In contrast to Donatello's boisterous dancers who fill a frieze running behind projecting columns, Luca della Robbia's children are calmer, and the verticals and horizontals of the compositions are in perfect harmony with the frame that clearly separates the panels. The superb bronze door of Florence Cathedral (146469) is Luca's last surviving work in metal; each of the reliefs contains three figures in a quietly arranged composition. After 1440 Luca worked chiefly in the medium of enameled terra cotta. His first dated work, a marble tabernacle at Peretola (144143), contains only small sections done in terra cotta, which the artist used here for its coloristic effects. In his well-known Madonnas, Luca's invention was inexhaustible; the compositions never repeat themselves, though the palette is limited to white and blues. A greater range of color is found in his architectural decorations, e.g., the roundels with figures of Apostles in the Pazzi Chapel (c. 144050; S. Croce, Florence) and the lunettes of the "Resurrection and Ascension" (144251; Cathedral Museum, Florence).

Andrea, Luca's nephew, continued the workshop tradition; b. 1435; d. 1525. His ten medallions of children on the arcade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (146366) are remarkable works, though they show a trend toward sentimentality. Under Andrea the mass production of terra-cotta Madonnas for private devotional use resulted in a decorative art of lower quality.

Giovanni, the most important artist among Andrea's five sons; b. 1469; d. 1529. In his works, such as the "Temptation" (1515; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), a greater naturalism is combined with a wider range of color.

Bibliography: l. planiscig, Luca della Robbia (Florence 1948). g. brunetti, Encyclopedia of World Art (New York 1959) 4:295302. j. pope-hennessey, Italian Renaissance Sculpture (New York 1958). c. seymour, "Young Luca della Robbia," Bulletin of the Dudley Peter Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College 20 (1963) 92119. a. marquand, Andrea della Robbia and His Atelier, 2 v. (Princeton 1922); Giovanni della Robbia (Princeton 1920).

[m. m. schaefer]