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date: 14 October 2019

Robbia, Luca della or Robiafree

Italian, 15th century, male.

Born 1400; died 10 February 1482.

Sculptor (terracotta, marble), potter.

Florentine School.

Luca della Robbia was the head of a long line of Florentine sculptors who created works of tin-glazed terracotta sculpture Luca was supposed to have invented. He is less known for his marble sculptures and bronzes - understandable, given that his successors produced almost entirely ceramics. His great skill was in giving a previously unknown brightness and fixedness to polychrome decoration, and he gave his figures deep feeling, an intensity of expression and realism. He was one of five artists acknowledged by Leon Battista Alberti in the prologue to his treatise De Pictura ( On Painting).

According to Giorgio Vasari, Luca trained with a Florentine goldsmith. He is first documented in 1427 as a member of the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, then working on the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. During his early career he created glazed terracotta reliefs for some of Brunelleschi’s buildings, including friezes for the Old Sacristy at S Lorenzo and the Twelve Apostles for Pazzi Chapel at S Croce. He produced many Madonna and Child reliefs in terracotta, some of which he moulded in multiples using casts. In the 1430s, Luca was commissioned to produce ten marble low reliefs for the singing gallery (cantoria) in the cathedral in Florence. They depict musical cherubs and are in the style of classical sarcophagi. The success of this work led to other commissions at the cathedral, including several reliefs for the bell tower, the bronze door of the north sacristy, for which he worked in partnership with Maso di Bartolommeo and Michelozzo, and glazed terracotta reliefs in the tympanums above. In his work on the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, the bishop of Fiesole (Florence, S Trinità), he combined his talent as a sculptor and ceramicist.

From the middle of the century until his death, Luca worked almost exclusively in glazed terracotta works, primarily reliefs but also some statuary. Most of his terracotta sculpture features white figures on a blue ground, but some of the later examples also have greens and yellows. An example of this type of work is the decoration with low reliefs of the Ospedale del Ceppo, in Pistoia. In 1448, Luca produced two figures of kneeling angels bearing candelabra, now in the canons’ sacristy at the cathedral. Around 1450, he worked with Maso di Bartolomeo, who built the main portal of the church of S Domenico in Urbino. Luca produced a relief for the tympanum of the main door depicting the Virgin and Child and Four Saints in half length. Probably in the 1450s, he produced a series of 12 roundels depicting the labors of the months for Piero de’ Medici to decorate his study in the family palace. After 1459, in S Miniato al Monte, Florence, Luca and his nephew Andrea della Robbia decorated the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, with a vault in glazed terracotta and adorned with five round medallions depicting the Holy Spirit and the cardinal virtues (Temperance, Strength, Justice and Prudence).

Luca also assisted in the exterior decoration of Orsanmichele in Florence. The south side bears a medallion depicting the Virgin and the Infant Jesus, and the east and north sides bear medallions depicting the coats of arms (stemme) of three Florentine guilds.

Other works by Luca della Robbia in Florence include the bust of St John the Evangelist in the cloister of the church of the Annunziata; the marble reliefs Deliverance of St Peter and Crucifixion of St Peter in the Bargello, Florence; and Virgin Holding the Infant Jesus between Two Angels, a semicircular tympanum, in the church of S Pierino in Mercato. His Tabernacle Surmounted by a Tympanum with a Pietà is in the church of S Maria in Terentola.

Luca della Robbia was elected president of the guild of Florentine sculptors in 1471, but he refused the position on account of his age and poor health. He died in 1482, leaving the workshop to his nephew Andrea.

Group Exhibitions

1985–1986, Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello, Detroit Institute of Arts

2001–2002, Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2002, Les Della Robbia, Musée Nationale du Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice

2009, The Della Robbia: The Dialogue between the Arts in the Renaissance, Arezzo, Museo Statale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Berlin (Gemäldegal.): Virgin Seated on the Ground with the Infant Jesus on Her Knees (low relief in painted plaster); Virgin and Infant Jesus (tympanum unglazed terracotta); Half-length Virgin Carrying the Infant Jesus (tympanum)

Detroit (IA): Madonna and Child (terracotta); Madonna and Child with Six Angels

Florence (Mus. dell’Opera del Duomo): five marble reliefs from the campanile

Florence (Mus. Nazionale del Bargello): Cantoria; Madonna del Roseto; Crucifixion of St Peter (marble relief); Deliverance of St Peter (marble relief); Madonna of the Apple; Bust of a Lady; Relief Bust of a Lady

London (Victoria and Albert Mus.): Arms of King René of Anjou (terracotta medallion); Adoration of the Magi; Adoration of the Shepherds; Months (12 roundels); Madonna and Child in a Niche; Madonna and Child

New York (Metropolitan MA): Madonna and Child (terracotta); Madonna and Child in a Niche (terracotta); Madonna and Child with Six Angels

Oxford (Ashmolean Mus.): Madonna and Child with Two Angels (stucco)

Paris (Louvre): Virgin Carrying the Infant Jesus; Madonna and Child with Six Angels

Paris (Mus. Jacquemart-André): Virgin and Child (blue glazed terracotta); Corsini Madonna (stucco); Two Angels with Candlesticks (bronze)

Urbino (Mus. Nazionale): Half-length Virgin Holding the Infant Jesus, between Four Saints (formerly S Domenico)

Auction Records

Paris, 1897: Kneeling Virgin and the Infant Jesus (polychrome stucco) FRF 520

Venice, 19 April 2001: Angel Praying (polychrome terracotta relief, 24 × 18 × 9 ins/60 × 45 × 24 cm) ITL 450,000,000

Venice, 15 Dec 2001: Crucifixion (painted terracotta/wood, 40 × 23 ins/102 × 59 cm) ITL 400,000,000

Venice, 19 Dec 2002: Madonna and Child with Saints (marble relief, 15 × 11 × ? ins/38 × 28 × ? cm) EUR 250,000

Venice, 19 Feb 2003: Bust of Woman (painted terracotta, h. 21 ins/53 cm) EUR 130,000

Bibliography

  • Marquand, Allan: Luca della Robbia, Hacker, New York, 1972 (first edition 1914).
  • Pope-Hennessy, John: Luca della Robbia, Phaidon, Oxford, 1980.
  • Even, Yael: ‘The Sacristy Portals: Cooperation at the Florentine Cathedral’, in Source, vol 6, 1987.
  • Gentilini, Giancarlo: I Della Robbia: La scultura invetriata del rinascimento, 2 vols, Cantini, Florence, 1992.
  • Foray, Jean-Michel/Gaborit, Jean-René: Les Della Robbia, exhibition catalogue, Musée national du Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, 2002.
  • Petrucci, Francesca: Luca della Robbia, Gruppo Editoriale l’Espresso, Milan, 2005.