Classical Culture

The Genius of the Della Robbia: Clay from the Arno Transformed by the of Art of Man

The Genius of the Della Robbia

Clay from the Arno Transformed by the of Art of Man

Greek Prometheus Relief
Greek relief sculpture of Prometheus crafting man out of clay, as Athena brings life to his creations

Genesis 2:7: And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence
National Gallery of Art
February 5-June 4, 2017

By Bonnie James

Forty masterpieces of the amazingly prolific della Robbia family of sculptors, including the sublime The Visitation, is now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. After premiering at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (August 9-December 4, 2016), the exhibition features works by three generations of the della Robbia family, spanning the 15th Century, from the 1430s, and into the first decades of the 16th Century. These distinctive works of art, created by a process invented by Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482), the pater familias and master of the family’s busy workshop in Florence, are familiar to anyone who has visited the Renaissance city; they are ubiquitous in the churches, homes, and many exterior walls of its buildings.

This is the first major American exhibition dedicated to works by all three generations of the della Robbia family and their competitors. More than 500 years after they were created, they retain their gleaming whites, cerulean blues, and vivid greens, purples, and yellows, the happy result of the glazing technique invented by Luca. The exhibition includes, in addition to many works from American collections, six major loans from Italy, among them, Luca’s masterpiece, The Visitation (c. 1445). On loan from the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, the work is traveling to the United States for the first time for the exhibition’s two venues.

An intriguing aspect of this show, is the relationship to the della Robbia, of the Antinori winemaking family of Tuscany, whose Super Tuscan wines are familiar to Americans. The family began producing wine in 1385, and Alessia Antinori, representing the 26th generation, participated in the realization of the current exhibition, and spoke at the press preview Jan. 31. The family’s connection to the della Robbia dates back to the early 16th Century, when Niccolò Antinori, commissioned Giovanni della Robbia (son of Luca’s nephew Andrea) to create the family crest. Giovanni’s glazed ceramic relief, the Resurrection of Christ (c. 1520–25), which is displayed above the entrance to the exhibit, was also originally commissioned by Niccolò (or his son Alessandro) for his country villa outside Florence. The Antinori patron appears prominently in this monumental lunette; his hands are held in prayer, as he kneels at the feet of Christ.

Luca Invents a Brilliant New Technique

Luca was already a successful sculptor in marble and bronze when he began to experiment with glazed ceramics, around 1440. His famous Cantoria (“Singing Gallery”; 1431-38) relief sculptures depicting young boys and angels singing, dancing,  and playing musical instruments (Figs. 1 & 2), originally graced the organ loft of the Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, and can still be viewed in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo. (You will have to travel to Florence to see these wonderful reliefs, on which Donatello also worked, and which were created under the supervision of Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the architect of the magnificent dome on the Cathedral, since none are included in the current exhibition.)


Fig. 1 Cantoria (detail)


Fig. 2 Cantoria (detail)

Around 1440, Luca determined to find a method of producing clay sculptures with brilliant colors that would last forever. Using clay from the banks of the
Arno River which flows through Florence, he developed an entirely new technique, inventing a recipe for glazing which was admired as a wonder of the time, and whose results are still evident today in the glorious colors that still enliven his terracotta sculptures. The architect Leon Batista Alberti placed Luca with the greatest Florentine artistic geniuses of the Early Renaissance—Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Masaccio. Georgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists (ca. 1550) praises Luca for his “new, useful, and most beautiful art,” one which was especially remarkable because its technique was unknown to ancient (i.e., Greek and Roman) sculptors. It was well known at the time that the alabaster color of the marble used in Greek sculptures (ca. 500-400 BC) had once been painted with bright colors, but that the paint had worn or been washed away over the centuries. Luca was determined to discover a method for overcoming this problem.

Luca’s glazes, Vasari writes, make his sculptures “almost eternal.” And, it was this quality that prompted Leonardo da Vinci, who had struggled to find a method to make paint colors permanent, to praise Luca’s invention, writing in his Treatise on Painting, that this “permanence can also be found in painting when it is done in enamel on metals, or terracottas…. These can be seen in several places in France and Italy, and most of all in Florence among the della Robbia family, who discovered a way to carry out every kind of great work in painting on terracotta covered with glaze.”

The della Robbia technique begins with the most humble material: clay. The clay from the Arno Riverbanks is light in color, due to its high calcium content, making it perfectly suited to the glazes of the family workshop, giving them their uniquely sparkling appearance. Luca’s recipe had far higher levels of lead and tin than those traditionally used in ceramic glazes, thus, ensuring opaque colors, while the tin content suffused the whites with exceptional brilliance. Minerals, such as cobalt (for blue), copper (for green), and magnanese (for purple) were added, producing the distinctive colors for which the della Robbia were famous, as can be seen in this Madonna and Child (Fig. 3). in which the full range of colors in the della Robba pallette is visible. [Note: While the Virgin is traditionally dressed in a red gown with a blue cloak, it was impossible to produce true red in the glazing process, because red requires organic materials, as opposed to the metals used for the other colors, which can stand up to the heat of the kiln. Thus, purple or maroon are used in place of red.]

Fig. 3 Madonna and Child, Luca della Robbia (1450-60)

This statue of the Virgin and Child would have been placed in a niche or above the altar of a church. Mary and the baby Jesus are presented in a naturalistic fasion; he smiles playfully, as Mary holds him gently on her lap; the Child rests his right arm on her hand; in his left hand is the traditional attribute of the orb, representing Salvator Mundi, or Savior of the World. Mary’s expression is somewhat ambiguous, as she looks into the future, foreseeing what is to come, yet a half-smile plays on her lips. The abundance of Christ’s gift to mankind is symbolized by the garland of fruit and flowers that decorates the arch, while the scallop shell is a representation of baptism.

The Visitation


Fig. 4 The Visitation, Luca Della Robbia (ca. 1445)

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda;
And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.
And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost…
— Luke 1:39-55
A strikingly young Virgin Mary gazes tenderly at her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who kneels before her. Their arms are entwined, as Mary bends forward slightly and Elizabeth’s deeply lined face looks up at her cousin, as their eyes join to express their love and joy at the twin miracles. This is the Visitation [Luke 1:39-55] (Fig. 4), in which Elizabeth, who has been childless, is now miraculously pregnant with the babe who will become John the Baptist, and Mary has learned that she is to be the Mother of God.

Like other large-scale works produced in the della Robbia workshops, The Visitation was fired in sections; in this case, four, in which the places where they are joined are masked by the folds of the drapery in such a way that they needed no mechanical means to hold them together. Moreover, each figure’s hands were modeled in one piece with the other’s upper body, such that the construction itself reinforces the bond between the two women.


Fig. 5 Meeting of the Christ and Young Saint John the Baptist in the Desert (ca. 1510)

A charming counterpoint to the Luca’s Visitation is Giovanni’s Meeting of the Christ and Young Saint John the Baptist in the Desert (ca. 1510), an event which is not found in the New
Testament, but was a popular medieval legend (Fig. 5). In a guide for rearing children, published around 1400 (Yes, there were such things 600 years ago!), friar Giovanni Dominici advised parents that to instill virtue and piety from a young age, children should be encouraged to play with the sculptures, kneel before them, and decorate them with flowers.


Fig. 6 Prudence (ca. 1475), Andrea della Robbia

One of the most striking works in this exhibition is the tondo of Prudence, by Andrea ca. 1475 (Fig. 6). In it, a double-faced figure looks forward and back: a young woman peers into a mirror, while a old man whose long beard merges with her hair, looks into the distance. The woman holds a (bright green) snake, which is a biblical symbol of wisdom (“We must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” Matthew 10:16). Prudence emerges from a body of deep blue water (the Arno?), and is surrounded by a lush garland of pears, lemons, grapes, cucumbers, and pine cones, all rendered in the rich della Robbia colors.

While the image of Prudence may appear somewhat odd to the modern viewer, in Renaissance Florence, she was a familiar figure, and viewed as a virtue highly prized for her attributes, which included learning from the past, forethought, and self-examination.

The Foundling Hospital; Andrea’s Orphans

Fig. 7 Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti (Founding Hospital), 1420s

Photo credit: I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Fig. 8 Andrea’s “Innocents,”1490

Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti, or Founding Hospital (Fig. 7), begun in 1421, was widely recognized as the first true Renaissance building, echoing architectural motifs of Classic Greek temples. That such as beautiful and brilliantly conceived structure would be dedicated to the smallest and most vulnerable (“the least among us”) is, in itself, an indication of the respect for and celebration of all human life that characterized the Renaissance ideal. Seventy years after Filippo began work on the building, in 1490, Andrea della Robbia was commissioned to add the blue and white terracotta roundels, each depicting a baby, and each one individualized so as to reflect the city’s commitment to each and every child abandoned at its doors (Fig. 8).Today, it remains one of the most beautiful and elegant structures in Florence.


Fig. 9 Adoring Angel, Luca the Younger (1510-15)
Fig. 10. Angel of the Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci, 1472-75 (detail)


The third generation of the della Robbia clan, in addition to Giovanni, included Luca the Younger (1475-1548), whose Adoring Angel (Fig. 9), using both glazed and unglazed terracotta, developed his father Andrea’s innovations of the 1490s. The della Robbia palette has been significantly expanded to include naturalistic colors such as skin tone and other subtle ivories and beiges. Might Luca the Younger have had Leonardo’s Angel from the Annunciation in mind (Fig. 10)? We know that Luca’s brother Giovanni shared Leonardo’s patron, King Francis I of France, for a time. Perhaps the two collaborated, and it was works like this one that elicited from the greatest of the Renaissance geniuses, the praise for “the della Robbia family, who discovered a way to carry out every kind of great work in painting on terracotta covered with glaze.”

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