The terracotta sculptures of the della Robbia family workshop progressed from 15th-century innovation, to vibrant feature of Florentine architecture, to ubiquitous museum object. They began with Luca della Robbia, who devised his own glazing technique for baked clay, with which he formed delicately emotive figures. The process evolved through three generations of the della Robbia family, with Luca’s nephew Andrea and Andrea’s son Giovanni, who all continued to innovate with plaster molds and increased color, their creations decorating the hospitals, churches, and homes of Renaissance Italy.
With their bright colors in blue, yellow, green, and sometimes purple, the sculptures can appear somewhat gaudy alongside their Italian Renaissance contemporaries. After popularity in 19th and early 20th century collecting, they fell out of favor. Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence, now at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, argues for a fresh look at the inventiveness of the della Robbia terracotta, and the humanity of its sculpted saints and citizens.
“Even though it’s so popular and people think they know the material and they see it everywhere, there’s actually never been a show dedicated to the work of the della Robbia family as a whole in America,” Marietta Cambareri, senior curator of European sculpture and curator of Judaica at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, told Hyperallergic. “[The exhibition] became more generally an introduction to this Renaissance technique that somehow went from being a great new invention in the Renaissance to run-of-the-mill in 20th-century notions.”
The MFA organized the exhibition in association with NGA, debuting it last fall in their galleries. Cambareri authored the beautiful accompanying catalogue for the traveling exhibition. There are over 40 works by the della Robbia family, and some from their competitors, including three 16th-century Franciscan saints by Santi Buglioni, wrinkles and veins visible on their unglazed skin. At NGA, the show’s second and last stop, Della Robbia flows from the museum’s courtyard with its fountain and flora, and spills visitors out into the permanent collection galleries of European paintings. Although it makes the experience feel a bit fragmented, its pieces broken apart like a pre-assembly della Robbia, the connection with the indoor garden emphasizes the original settings of the sculptures. “I like to say it’s like you’re walking on the streets of Florence and coming upon these wonderful things,” Cambareri said.
In one case, it might be even better. The 1400–82 “Visitation,” on its first loan to the United States from the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, is usually only viewable from below. Now visitors can approach it at eye-level in a specially-designed niche. “In its original setting in Italy, it’s over an altar, lowly lit in a dark church,” Cambareri explained. “It’s a great masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture that people know, but no one has actually seen. At the gallery you can practically hug it, it’s so thrilling.”
The expressive duo by Luca della Robbia shows Mary with her older cousin Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant (Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist), a spiritual energy seeming to pass between their conjoined bodies (although they are composed of four separate parts fitted together). Their bodies draped with garments are all a gleaming cream-white, which would have glistened in the church candlelight. Just before you encounter the women, you walk under a richly hued 1520–25 “Resurrection” relief by Giovanni della Robbia, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. In it, Christ rises from the tomb, draped in mauve robes, and bordered by fruit and flowers, while Roman guards scatter in green, blue, and yellow around him. Manifesting as if in a time portal is a member of the Antinori family, folding his hands in reverence. Cambareri noted that situated above a doorway in NGA, it’s similar to its original position on the Antinori villa’s garden gate.
“That’s always a goal when we install Renaissance sculptures, to in some way try to communicate how these things actually worked and functioned, things that always had some sort of specific role to play in the life of the city and the home and the church,” Cambareri said.
It also represents several opportunities for conservation preceding the exhibition, bringing out objects from storage, revealing glaze recipes, and long unknown secrets of the della Robbia trade. The exhibition funded the conservation of “The Visitation,” and the Brooklyn Museum conserved the 46 sections of the “Resurrection” for its first departure from the museum since its arrival in 1898. One recent conservation from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the 1475 “Prudence” by Andrea della Robbia, revived its bountiful border of lemons, grapes, pinecones, and cucumbers, circling the double-faced head of a young woman whose hair flows into the beard of an elderly man. When it was dismantled, the Met found the old marks from the workshop of where the clay was connected. Thanks to the hardiness of the glazing and terracotta, once its surfaces are clean, the sculptures appear almost as they did when they came out the kiln centuries ago. And it’s that tactile, earthy quality that made it popular with 19th-century collectors, and has returned the work to prominence today.
“It’s a really great moment that people are starting to look at the material again and really appreciate it for what it means in its Renaissance context, and what it means in the history of collecting,” Cambareri said. “It’s a great moment for della Robbia sculpture, and it’s one aspect of a broader renewed interest in the material as a whole.”
Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence continues through June 4 at the National Gallery of Art (6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC).