An exhibit at the National Gallery of Art brings together the works
of three generations of the Florentine family of artists founded by
15th-century artist Luca Della Robbia. Luca’s masterpiece in the tin-glazed
terracotta medium that he invented, a nearly life-size “Visitation” loaned from
a church in Pistoia for the first time, is alone worth the visit.
Fired in only four pieces, the all-white group (the only color is
the women’s blue eyes) captures the contrasting youth of Mary and old age of
Elizabeth at the moment they tenderly embrace. The unborn John the Baptist
leaps in his mother’s womb in recognition of the unborn savior in the womb of
the Virgin. The youthful hands of the young woman are part of the upper body of
her elderly cousin, while the aged hands of Elizabeth are part of the upper
body of Mary. Even in Pistoia, where the “Visitation” has been in the same
church for nearly 600 years, it is less visible in its dark niche under a Plexiglas
shield than in this show.
Besides cerulean blue and luminous white, Luca used lemon-yellow
and leaf-green glazes in his sculptures that were fired twice, first just the
clay and then with the colored glazes. They were not meant to be a cheaper
version of marble — they don’t look at all like stone. The light-colored fine
clay, mined on a property the Della Robbia family owned, was cheap, but the
value of the works lay in the artistry of their makers. This idea of valuing
the artist’s mind above precious materials is a hallmark of the Florentine
Art with a Purpose
In the upper valley of the Tiber River that flows into Rome, the
Italian village of Pieve di S. Stefano has survived two cataclysms: a
devastating flood in 1855, and the razing of the town by the retreating Nazis
in 1944, recorded in a numbing photo album in the town hall. Yet, visitors to
the rebuilt town will enjoy two colorful three-dimensional works of art that
have survived over five centuries: a grand altarpiece of the “Crucifixion and
Saints” in the parish church, and a large “Christ and the Samaritan Woman”
panel in the civic museum.
These two works are by the second and third generation of the
family, Andrea and Giovanni Della Robbia. Luca Della Robbia was a master marble
carver who introduced his new technique around 1440, producing works of art into
sculpture that introduced indestructible color, luminous surfaces, and
legibility at a distance. To this day, no one has figured out the unique family
recipe of the Della Robbia.
It is no accident that the
art works that survived Pieve di S. Stefano’s two disasters are Della Robbias.
Andrea Della Robbia was Luca’s nephew and had 12 offspring of his
own, several of whom joined the family craft. His genius is especially evident
in his images of children. Whether a portrait of an actual child or a sacred
figure, Andrea is the first artist to render a lifelike image of a playful,
thoughtful, or loving child. His son Giovanni extended the tradition by
expanding the color palette and scale of the workshop’s productions. Red was
not chemically possible, but browns and purples fill out the complex
The technique died out by 1550. In the late 1800s collectors in
America began to appreciate these works.
In 1899, an American magnate donated a Resurrection lunette
(crescent shape piece) to the Brooklyn Museum. The noble Antinori family, whose
ancestor commissioned this work for his villa, and is still making fine Chianti
wines, paid for the conservation of this piece. Displayed over the entrance to
the exhibit, the “Resurrection,” weighing over 1,000 pounds and fired in 46
separate tiles, will be in Washington through the Easter season.
Many Della Robbias are small reliefs of the “Madonna and Child”
in a great variety of poses, destined for private homes. This trend was in
keeping with the precepts of the Dominican monk Giovanni Dominici, who wrote a
guide in 1400 for woman rearing children while their husbands were absent in
exile or on business. He believed that artworks could help raise children to
become devout Christians as they contemplated the incarnation of Christ.
“The beauty, purity, and brilliance of the Della Robbia technique
enlivened the environment of the home and encouraged devotion to these central
figures in the story of salvation through the Christian faith,” writes curator
Marietta Cambareri in the catalog. In short, the works were more than interior
decor, they played a vital role in the life of Christians at home, just as the
Della Robbia altarpieces and plaques that abound in the upper Tiber valley were
crucial to public worship and communal life.
Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.