BEST WORKS OF SCULPTURE
Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482)
One of the most highly regarded figures in Italian Renaissance sculpture, Luca Della Robbia is ranked alongside Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti; the architect Filippo Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio. Appreciated for his marble sculpture, he is also known for developing an enamelling technique which weather-proofed terracotta relief sculpture and other decorations. His preference for and mastery of terracotta was similar to that of the later Renaissance sculptor Guido Mazzoni (1450-1518), except that Mazzoni worked away from the major cultural centres of Florence, Rome and Venice.
Robbia's most important works include the Singing Gallery (1431-38, and two lunettes, the Resurrection (1445) and the Ascension (1446), all for Florence Cathedral.
Born in 1400 in Florence, Robbia's father is recorded as Simone di Marco Della Robbia, a Florentine citizen and member of the Wool Makers Guild. Facts about Robbias early life or training in the art of sculpture are scarce. It has been suggested that he may have first qualified in goldsmithing, and it is possible that he trained with Renaissance sculptors like Niccolo di Piero Lamberti and the more famous Jacopo della Quercia (c.1374-1438) and Nanni di Banco (with whom he may have worked in 1420 on the decoration of the Porta della Mandorla in Florence Cathedral).
FORMS OF SCULPTING
Singing Gallery Sculptural Reliefs, Florence Cathedral
Robbia's first documented commission is the Singing Gallery (Cantoria) for Florence Cathedral in 1431. Although Robbia must have been a relatively unknown artist at this time, the prestigious commission demonstrates that although earlier works by him may not survive today, he must have demonstrated his skill prior to this, enough to impress his patrons at least. No doubt the fact that more established sculptors like Donatello and Michelozzo were otherwise occupied on works in Rome helped his case. The Singing Gallery consists of 10 marble panels of sculptural reliefs, showing singing infants, teenagers and angels praising the Lord in the words of Psalm 150. Where Donatello's carved figures that were vigorous and dramatic, Robbia's figures are serene and graceful. The relief was originally placed above the North Sacristy door in the Cathedral, but was dismantled in 1688. It was eventually painstakingly reassembled and is now housed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. In 1432, Robbia joined the Sculptors Guild. For more about the completion of the celebrated and iconic Florentine duomo, see: Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance (1420-36).
Enamel and Terracotta Experimentation
Robbia continued to work for the next ten years in marble and bronze. In 1437 he began a series of marble reliefs for the bell tower of Florence. Around this time, he also started experimenting with marble and enamelled terracotta. According to the Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari, in his historical review of the history of sculpture during the Italian Renaissance, Luca experimented with a glaze consisting of a mixture of tin oxide, litharge antimony and other minerals. This glaze made his terracotta sculpture more durable and would go on to keep his family in work for generations. His earliest documented work using this technique are two lunettes, the Resurrection (1445) and the Ascension (1446) over the Sacristy doors of Florence Cathedral (144245, now in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, Florence). By covering the baked clay model in a hard glaze, his figures looked like they were bathed in light, the polished surface reflecting light and colour. It has been suggested that Robbia's reliefs achieve a sort of perfection that has never been equalled since. The Cathedral Vestry Board were so pleased with his lunettes, they offered him several more commissions.
Mature Reliefs using New Techniques
Robbia continued to create decorative schemes using his new technique, including the roundels of Apostles in Filippo Brunelleschis Pazzi Chapel in Florence, along with the terracotta decorations in the cupola of the porch (1443). In 1448 he was asked to glaze the vault of the Chapel of the Crucifix (San Miniato al Monte, Florence), which was designed by the famous architect Michelozzo. In 1449 he created the lunette over the entrance of the San Domenico church in Urbino. Working with assistants and apprentices, including several of his own family, Robbia went on to receive numerous relief and altarpiece commissions. One of the finest examples of his Renaissance art from this period is the enamelled terracotta ceiling of the Chapel of Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato, Florence (1466). His last major work in this glaze medium was an altarpiece in the Palazzo Vescovile at Pescia (1472).
Sculptures and Statuettes
Robbia continued to make some 'traditional' sculptures including the marble tabernacle carved for the Chapel of San Luca, Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, Florence (1441; now at Santa Maria Church, Peretola) and the tomb of Bishop Benozzo Federighi of Fiesole (145457, Santa Trinita, Florence).
Several smaller works are in collections around the world and include:
Angel with Candlestick (1448, Duomo, Florence). Glazed terracotta statuette of a pair of candelabrum-bearing angels. Originally commissioned by Cathedral Vestry Board for the altar of the Communion Chapel in the Florence Cathedral.
Christ and Thomas (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest). Terracotta statuette was a study made for a competition to fill a niche in the wall of the Orsanmichele in Florence. The competition was won by Andrea del Verrocchio.
Madonna and Child (1464-65, Orsanmichele, Florence). Glazed terracotta relief representing the symbol of the Arte dei Medici and degli Speziali (Guild of the Physicians).
Madonna and Child (1455-60, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Glazed terracotta Madonna statue, typical of Robbia's style. The flowing garment is reminiscent of Ghiberti but keeps with Robbia's preference for serene expression and delicate modelling.
In 1471 Luca was elected to the Presidency of the Florentine Guild of Sculptors, an honour he declined due to advancing age. It did however demonstrate the esteem he was held with in his time. Robbia died in Florence in 1483. He was the first of a dynasty of important pottery artists, including Andrea della Robbia (his nephew) and Giovanni della Robbia (son of Andrea).