1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Della Robbia

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DELLA ROBBIA, the name of a family of great distinction in the annals of Florentine art. Its members are enumerated in chronological order below.[1]

I. Luca della Robbia (1399 or 1400[2]–1482) was the son of a Florentine named Simone di Marco della Robbia. According to Vasari, whose account of Luca’s early life is little to be trusted, he was apprenticed to the silversmith Leonardo di Ser Giovanni, who from 1355 to 1371 was working on the grand silver altar frontal for the cathedral at Pistoia (q.v.); this, however, appears doubtful from the great age which it would give to Leonardo, and it is more probable that Luca was the pupil of Ghiberti. During the early part of his life Luca executed many important and exceedingly beautiful pieces of sculpture in marble and bronze. In technical skill he was quite the equal of Ghiberti, and, while possessing all Donatello’s vigour, dramatic power and originality, he very frequently excelled him in grace of attitude and soft beauty of expression. No sculptured work of the great 15th century ever surpassed the singing gallery which Luca made for the cathedral at Florence between 1431 and 1440, with its ten magnificent panels of singing angels and dancing boys, far exceeding in beauty those which Donatello in 1433 sculptured for the opposite gallery in the same choir. This splendid work is now to be found in the Museo del Duomo. The general effect of the whole can also be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a complete cast is fixed to the wall. The same museum possesses a study in gesso duro for one of the panels, which appears to be the original sketch by Luca’s own hand.

In May 1437 Luca received a commission from the signoria of Florence to execute five reliefs for the north side of the campanile, to complete the series begun by Giotto and Andrea Pisano. These panels are so much in the earlier style of Giotto that we must conclude that he had left drawings from which Luca worked. They have representative figures chosen to typify grammar, logic, philosophy, music, and science,—the last represented by Euclid and Ptolemy.[3] In 1438 Luca in association with Donatello received an order for two marble altars for chapels in the cathedral. The reliefs from one of them—St Peter’s Deliverance from Prison and his Crucifixion—are now in the Bargello. It is probable that these altars were never finished. A tabernacle for the host, made by Luca in 1442, is now at Peretola, near Florence, in the church of S. Maria. A document in the archives of S. Maria Nuova at Florence shows that he received for this 700 florins 1 lira 16 soldi (about £1400 of modern money). In 1437 Donatello received a commission to cast a bronze door for one of the sacristies of the cathedral; but, as he delayed to execute this order, the work was handed over to Luca on the 28th of February 1446, with Michelozzo and Maso di Bartolomeo as his assistants. Part of this wonderful door was cast in 1448, and the last two panels were finished by Luca in 1467, with bronze which was supplied to him by Verrocchio.[4] The door is divided into ten square panels, with small heads in the style of Ghiberti projecting from the framing. The two top subjects are the Madonna and Child and the Baptist, next come the four Evangelists, and below are the four Latin Doctors, each subject with attendant angels. The whole is modelled with perfect grace and dignified simplicity; the heads throughout are full of life, and the treatment of the drapery in broad simple folds is worthy of a Greek sculptor of the best period of Hellenic art. These exquisite reliefs are perfect models of plastic art, and are quite free from the over-elaboration and too pictorial style of Ghiberti. Fig. 1 shows one of the panels.

Fig. 1.—Bronze Relief of one of the Latin Doctors, from the sacristy door in the cathedral of Florence, by Luca.

The most important existing work in marble by Luca (executed in 1454–1456) is the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of Fiesole, originally placed in the church of S. Pancrazio at Florence, but removed to S. Francesco di Paola on the Bellosguardo road outside the city in 1783. In 1898 it was again removed to the church of SS. Trinita in Florence. A very beautiful effigy of the bishop in a restful pose lies on a sarcophagus sculptured with graceful reliefs of angels holding a wreath which contains the inscription. Above are three-quarter length figures of Christ between St John and the Virgin, of conventional type. The whole is surrounded by a rectangular frame formed of painted tiles of exquisite beauty, but out of keeping with the memorial. On each tile is painted, with enamel pigments, a bunch of flowers and fruit in brilliant realistic colours, the loveliness of which is very hard to describe. Though the bunch of flowers on each is painted on one slab, the ground of each tile is formed of separate pieces, fitted together like a kind of mosaic, probably because the pigment of the ground required a different degree of heat in firing from that needed for the enamel painting of the centre. The few other works of this class which exist do not approach the beauty of this early essay in tile painting, on which Luca evidently put forth his utmost skill and patience.

In the latter part of his life Luca was mainly occupied with the production of terra-cotta reliefs covered with enamel, a process which he improved upon, but did not invent, as Vasari asserts. The rationale of this process was to cover the clay relief with an enamel formed of the ordinary ingredients of glass (marzacotto), made white and opaque by oxide of tin. (See Ceramics: Italian Majolica.) Though Luca was not the inventor of the process, yet he extended its application to fine sculptured work in terra-cotta, so that it is not unnaturally known now as Della Robbia ware; it must, however, be remembered that by far the majority of these reliefs which in Italy and elsewhere are ascribed to Luca are really the work of some of the younger members of the family or of the atelier which they founded. Comparatively few exist which can with certainty be ascribed to Luca himself. Among the earliest of these are medallions of the four Evangelists in the vault of Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel in S. Croce. These fine reliefs are coloured with various metallic oxides in different shades of blue, green, purple, yellow and black. It has often been asserted that the very polychromatic reliefs belong to Andrea or his sons, and that Luca’s were all in pure white, or in white and blue; this, however, is not the case; colours were used as freely by Luca as by his successors. A relief in the Victoria and Albert Museum furnishes a striking example of this and is of especial value from its great size, and also because its date is known. This is an enormous medallion containing the arms of René of Anjou and other heraldic devices; it is surrounded by a splendidly modelled wreath of fruit and flowers, especially apples, lemons, oranges and fir cones, all of which are brilliantly coloured. This medallion was set up on the façade of the Pazzi Palace to commemorate René’s visit to Florence in 1442. Other reliefs by Luca, also in glazed terra-cotta, are those of the Ascension and Resurrection in the tympani of the doors of the sacristies in the cathedral, executed in 1443 and 1446. Other existing works of Luca in Florence are the tympanum reliefs of the Madonna between two Angels in the Via dell’ Agnolo, a work of exquisite beauty, and another formerly over the door of S. Pierino del Mercato Vecchio, but now removed to the Bargello (No. 29). The only existing statues by Luca are two lovely enamelled figures of kneeling angels holding candlesticks, now in the canons’ sacristy.[5] A very fine work by Luca, executed between 1449 and 1452, is the tympanum relief of the Madonna and four Monastic Saints over the door of S. Domenico at Urbino.[6] Luca also made the four coloured medallions of the Virtues set in the vault over the tomb of the young cardinal-prince of Portugal in a side chapel of S. Miniato in Florence (see Rossellino). By Luca also are various polychromatic medallions outside Or San Michele.[7] One of his chief decorative works which no longer exists was a small library or study for Piero de’ Medici, wholly lined with enamelled plaques and reliefs.[8] The Victoria and Albert Museum possesses twelve circular plaques of majolica ware painted in blue and white with the Occupations of the Months; these have been attributed to Luca, under the idea that they formed part of the decoration of this room, but their real origin is doubtful.

In 1471 Luca was elected president of the Florentine Gild of Sculptors, but he refused this great honour on account of his age and infirmity. It shows, however, the very high estimation in which he was held by his contemporaries. He died on the 20th of February 1482, leaving his property to his nephews Andrea and Simone.[9] His chief pupil was his nephew Andrea, and Agostino di Duccio, who executed many pieces of sculpture at Rimini, and the graceful but mannered marble reliefs of angels on the façade of S. Bernardino at Perugia, may have been one of his assistants.[10] Vasari calls this Agostino Luca’s brother, but he was not related to him at all.

II. Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), the nephew and pupil of Luca, carried on the production of the enamelled reliefs on a much larger scale than his uncle had ever done; he also extended its application to various architectural uses, such as friezes and to the making of lavabos (lavatories), fountains and large retables. The result of this was that, though the finest reliefs from the workshop of Andrea were but little if at all inferior to those from the hand of Luca, yet some of them, turned out by pupils and assistants, reached only a lower standard of merit. Only one work in marble by Andrea is known, namely, an altar in S. Maria delle Grazie near Arezzo, mentioned by Vasari (ed. Milanesi, ii. p. 179), and still well preserved.

Fig. 2.—Enamelled Clay Relief of Virgin and Child, by Andrea.

One variety of method was introduced by Andrea in his enamelled work; sometimes he omitted the enamel on the face and hands (nude parts) of his figures, especially in those cases where he had treated the heads in a realistic manner; as, for example, in the noble tympanum relief of the meeting of St Domenic and St Francis in the loggia of the Florentine hospital of S. Paolo,—a design suggested by a fresco of Fra Angelico’s in the cloister of St Mark’s. One of the most remarkable works by Andrea is the series of medallions with reliefs of Infants in white on a blue ground set on the front of the foundling hospital at Florence. These lovely child-figures are modelled with wonderful skill and variety, no two being alike. Andrea produced, for gilds and private persons, a large number of reliefs of the Madonna and Child varied with much invention, and all of extreme beauty of pose and sweetness of expression. These are frequently framed with realistic yet decorative garlands of fruit and flowers painted with coloured enamels, while the main relief is left white. Fig. 2 shows a good example of these smaller works. The hospital of S. Paolo, near S. Maria Novella, has also a number of fine medallions with reliefs of saints, two of Christ Healing the Sick, and two fine portraits, under which are white plaques inscribed—“dall anno 1451 all anno 1495[11]; the first of these dates is the year when the hospital was rebuilt owing to a papal brief sent to the archbishop of Florence. Arezzo possesses a number of fine enamelled works by Andrea and his sons—a retable in the cathedral with God holding the Crucified Christ, surrounded by angels, and below, kneeling figures of S. Donato and S. Bernardino; also in the chapel of the Campo Santo is a fine relief of the Madonna and Child with four saints at the sides. In S. Maria in Grado is a very noble retable with angels holding a crown over a standing figure of the Madonna; a number of small figures of worshippers take refuge in the folds of the Virgin’s mantle, a favourite motive for sculpture dedicated by gilds or other corporate bodies. Perhaps the finest collection of works of this class is at La Verna, not far from Arezzo (see Vasari, ed. Milanesi, ii. p. 179). The best of these, three large retables with representations of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Madonna giving her Girdle to St Thomas, are probably the work of Andrea himself, the others being by his sons. In 1489 Andrea made a beautiful relief of the Virgin and two Angels, now over the archive-room door in the Florentine Opera del Duomo; for this he was paid twenty gold florins (see Cavallucci, S. Maria del Fiore). In the same year he modelled the fine tympanum relief over a door of Prato cathedral, with a half-length figure of the Madonna between St Stephen and St Lawrence, surrounded by a frame of angels’ heads.

In 1491 he was still working at Prato, where many of his best reliefs still exist. A fine bust of S. Lino exists over the side door of the cathedral at Volterra, which is attributed to Andrea. Other late works of known date are a magnificent bust of the Protonotary Almadiano, made in 1510 for the church of S. Giovanni de’ Fiorentini at Viterbo, now preserved in the Palazzo Communale there, and a medallion of the Virgin in Glory, surrounded by angels, made in 1505 for Pistoia cathedral.[12] The latest work attributed to Andrea, though apparently only a workshop production of 1515, is a relief representing the Adoration of the Magi, made for a little church, St Maria, in Pian di Mugnone, near Florence.[13] Portions of this work are still in the church, but some fragments of it are at Oxford.

III., IV. Five of Andrea’s seven sons worked with their father, and after his death carried on the Robbia fabrique; the dates of their birth are shown in the table on p. 838 ante. Early in life two of them came under the influence of Savonarola, and took monastic orders at his Dominican convent; these were Marco, who adopted the name of Fra Luca, and Paolo, called Fra Ambrogio. One relief by the latter, a Nativity with four life-sized figures of rather poor work, is in the Cappella degli Spagnuoli in the Sienese convent of S. Spirito; a MS. in the convent archives records that it was made in 1504.

V. The chief existing work known to be by the second Luca[14] is the very rich and beautiful tile pavement in the uppermost story of Raphael’s loggie at the Vatican, finely designed and painted in harmonious majolica colours. This was made by Luca at Raphael’s request and under his supervision in 1518.[15] It is still in very fine preservation.

VI. Giovanni della Robbia (1460–1529?) during a great part of his life worked as assistant to his father, Andrea, and in many cases the enamelled sculpture of the two cannot be distinguished. Some of Giovanni’s independent works are of great merit, especially the earlier ones; during the latter part of his life his reliefs deteriorated in style, owing mainly to the universal decadence of the time. A very large number of pieces of Robbia ware which are attributed to Andrea, and even to the elder Luca, were really by the hand of Giovanni. One of his finest works is a large retable at Volterra in the church of S. Girolamo, dated 1501; it represents the Last Judgment, and is remarkable for the fine modelling of the figures, especially that of the archangel Michael, and a nude kneeling figure of a youth who has just risen from his tomb. Quite equal in beauty to anything of his father’s, from whom the design of the figures was probably taken, is the washing-fountain in the sacristy of S. Maria Novella at Florence, made in 1497.[16] It is a large arched recess with a view of the seashore, not very decorative in style, painted on majolica tiles at the back. There are also two very beautiful painted majolica panels of fruit-trees let into the lower part. In the tympanum of the arch is a very lovely white relief of the Madonna between two Adoring Angels (see fig. 3). Long coloured garlands of fruit and flowers are held by nude boys reclining on the top of the arch and others standing on the cornice. All this part is of enamelled clay, but the basin of the fountain is of white marble. Neither Luca nor Andrea was in the habit of signing his work, but Giovanni often did so, usually adding the date, probably because other potters had begun to imitate the Robbia ware.[17]

Fig. 3.—Relief of Madonna and Angels in the tympanum of the
lavabo (S. Maria Novella, Florence), by Giovanni.

Giovanni lacked the original talent of Luca and Andrea, and so he not only copied their work but even reproduced in clay the marble sculpture of Pollaiuolo, Da Settignano, Verrocchio and others. A relief by him, evidently taken from Mino da Fiesole, exists in the Palazzo Castracane Staccoli. Among the very numerous other works of Giovanni are a relief in the wall of a suppressed convent in the Via Nazionale at Florence, and two reliefs in the Bargello dated 1521 and 1522. That dated 1521 is a many-coloured relief of the Nativity, and was taken from the church of S. Girolamo in Florence; it is a too pictorial work, marred by the use of many different planes. Its predella has a small relief of the Adoration of the Magi, and is inscribed “Hoc opus fecit Ioaes Andee de Robia, ac a posuit hoc in tempore die ultima lulli ANO. DNI. M.D. XXI.” At Pisa in the Campo Santo is a relief in Giovanni’s later and poorer manner dated 1520; it is a Madonna surrounded by angels, with saints below—the whole overcrowded with figures and ornaments. Giovanni’s largest and perhaps finest work is the polychromatic frieze on the outside of the Del Ceppo hospital at Pistoia, for which he received various sums of money between 1525 and 1529, as is recorded in documents which still exist among the archives of the hospital.[18] The subjects of this frieze are the Seven Works of Mercy, forming a continuous band of sculpture in high relief, well modelled and designed in a very broad sculpturesque way, but disfigured by the crudeness of some of its colouring. Six of these reliefs are by Giovanni, namely, Clothing the Naked, Washing the Feet of Pilgrims, Visiting the Sick, Visiting Prisoners, Burying the Dead, and Feeding the Hungry. The seventh, Giving drink to the Thirsty, was made by Filippo Paladini of Pistoia in 1585; this last is simply made of painted stucco. The large figures of the virtues placed between the scenes, and the medallions between the pillars, are the work of assistants or imitators.

A large octagonal font of enamelled clay, with pilasters at the angles and panels between them with scenes from the life of the Baptist, in the church of S. Leonardo at Cerreto Guidi, is a work of the school of Giovanni; the reliefs are pictorial in style and coarse in execution. Giovanni’s chief pupil was a man named Benedetto Buglioni (1461–1521), and a pupil of his, one Santi Buglioni (b. 1494), entered the Robbia workshops in 1521, and assisted in the later works of Giovanni.

VII. Girolamo della Robbia (1488–1566), another of Andrea’s sons, was an architect and a sculptor in marble and bronze as well as in enamelled clay. During the first part of his life he, like his brothers, worked with his father, but in 1528 he went to France and spent nearly forty years in the service of the French Royal family. Francis I. employed him to build a palace in the Bois de Boulogne called the Château de Madrid. This was a large well-designed building, four storeys high, two of them having open loggie in the Italian fashion. Girolamo decorated it richly with terra-cotta medallions, friezes and other architectural features.[19] For this purpose he set up kilns at Suresnes. Though the palace itself has been destroyed, drawings of it exist.[20]

The best collections of Robbia ware are in the Florentine Bargello, Accademia and Museo del Duomo; the Victoria and Albert Museum (the finest out of Italy); the Louvre, the Cluny and the Berlin Museums; while fine examples are to be found in New York, Boston, St Petersburg and Vienna. Many fine specimens exist in private collections in England, France, Germany and the United States. The greater part of the Robbia work still remains in the churches and other buildings of Italy, especially in Florence, Fiesole, Arezzo, La Verna, Volterra, Barga, Montepulciano, Lucca, Pistoia, Prato and Siena.

Literature.—H. Barbet de Jouy, Les della Robbia (Paris, 1855); W. Bode, Die Künstlerfamilie della Robbia (Leipzig, 1878); “Luca della Robbia ed i suoi precursori in Firenze,” Arch. stor. dell’ arte (1899); “Über Luca della Robbia,” Sitzungsbericht von der Berliner kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft (1896); Florentiner Bildhauer der Renaissance (Berlin, 1902); G. Carocci, I Dintorni de Firenze (Florence, 1881); “Il Monumento di Benozzo Federighi,” Arte e Storia (1894); “Opere Robbiane poco noti,” Arte e storia (1898, 1899); Cavallucci et Molinier, Les della Robbia (Paris, 1884); Maud Crutwell, Luca and Andrea della Robbia and their Successors (London, 1902); A. du Cerceau, Les plus excellents bastiments de France (Paris, 1586); G. Milanesi, Le Vite scritte da Vasari (Florence, 1878); M. Reymond, Les della Robbia (Florence, 1897); La Sculpture Florentine (Florence, 1898); I. B. Supino, Catalogo del R. Museo di Firenze (Rome 1898); Vasari (see Milanesi’s edition).  (J. H. M.; W. B.*) 

  1. Geneaological tree of Della Robbia sculptors:—
  2. Not 1388, as Vasari says. See a document printed by Gaye, Carteggio inedito, i. pp. 182–186.
  3. Vasari is not quite right in his account of these reliefs: he speaks of Euclid and Ptolemy as being in different panels.
  4. See Cavallucci, S. Maria del Fiore, pt. ii. p. 137.
  5. The Victoria and Albert Museum possesses what seem to be fine replicas of these statues.
  6. The document in which the order for this and the price paid for it are recorded is published by Yriarte, Gaz. d. beaux arts, xxiv. p. 143.
  7. One of these medallions, that of the Physicians, is now removed to the inside of the church.
  8. It is fully described by Filarete in his Trattato dell’ architectura, written in 1464, and therefore was finished before that date; see also Vasari, ed. Milanesi (Florence, 1880), ii. p. 174.
  9. His will, dated 19th February 1471, is published by Gaye, Cart. ined. i. p. 185.
  10. In the works of Perkins and others on Italian sculpture these Perugian reliefs are wrongly stated to be of enamelled clay.
  11. Professor Marquand has discovered, beneath 1451, the inscription Prete Benino, and, under 1495, De Benini; probably the names of the governors of the hospital at these dates.
  12. See Gualandi, Memorie risguardanti le belle arti (Bologna, 1845), vi. pp. 33-35, where original documents are printed recording the dates and prices paid for these and other works of Andrea.
  13. See a document printed by Milanesi in his Vasari, ii. p. 180.
  14. It appears certain that this Luca was a layman and not the Fra Luca referred to above.
  15. It is illustrated by Gruner, Fresco Decorations of Italy (London, 1854), pl. iv.; see also Müntz, Raphaël, sa vie, &c. (Paris, 1881), p. 452, note i., and Vasari, ed. Milanesi, ii. p. 182.
  16. See a document printed by Milanesi in his Vasari, ii. 193.
  17. Examples of these imitations are a retable in S. Lucchese near Poggibonsi dated 1514, another of the Madonna and Saints at Monte San Savino of 1525, and a third in the Capuchin church of Arceria near Sinigaglia; they are all inferior to the best works of the Robbia family, though some of them may have been made by assistants trained in the Robbia workshops.
  18. The hospital itself was begun in 1514.
  19. The Sèvres Museum possesses some fragments of these decorations.
  20. See Laborde, Château de Madrid (Paris, 1853), and Comptes des bâtiments du roi (Paris, 1877–1880), in which a full account is given of Girolamo’s work in connexion with this palace.