Masters of Clay: The Della Robbia Tradition

by Sterling Lucas

The National Gallery exhibition captures the spirit of the Florentine Renaissance.

Robbia, Giovanni della. Resurrection of Christ, ca. 1500- 1520, glazed terracotta overall: 156.2 x 349.3 x 29.2 cm (61 1/2 x 137 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) Brooklyn Museum, Gift of A. Augustus Healy

In the height of the Early Renaissance Niccolo Antinori and Alessandro Antinori commissioned a massive terracotta lunette to decorate the entrance of Villa Le Rose, their family residence located just outside of Florence, Italy. They enlisted the services of the renowned Della Robbia workshop, a family-owned enterprise that vigorously produced terracotta works for both sacred and secular purposes.

The glazed terracotta relief was created in 46 individual pieces, fired, and assembled to form a garnished depiction of the Resurrection of Christ.

The elaborate sculpture is a technological innovation. Created by Giovanni della Robbia using his great uncle Luca della Robbia’s mysterious technique of firing clay, the beautiful glaze pigments shine just as bright today as they did 500 years ago. Like many works in the National Gallery’s exhibition Della Robbia: Sculpting with color in Renaissance Florence the masterpiece endured a long journey to get to the nation’s capital. Donated to the Brooklyn Museum in 1898 the important work was painstakingly restored by the museum using funds donated by the 26th generation ancestors of Nicollo and Alessandro. The work has left Brooklyn for the first time in a century.

Several works in the exhibition have come from Italy for the first time. Most notable is a breathtaking nearly life-size rendition of a pregnant Virgin Mary who is welcomed by her elderly cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with St.

John the Baptist, lent by the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Tuscany, who has housed the work since 1445. The poignant sculpture was created by the original master Luca della Robbia and lacks the intense color of some of the studio’s other works.

When depicting biblical figures della Robbia often left the works uncolored as a symbol for the subject’s innocence and purity.

Robbia, Andrea della. Prudence, ca. 1475, glazed terracotta overall: 164.5 cm (64 3/4 in.) weight: 1223 lb. (554.749 kg) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Puchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1921

Another highlight of the show is Prudence, 1475, a work by Andrea della Robbia, the nephew of Luca. The roundel is nearly the size of a wagon wheel and features the allegorical virtue Prudence. The beautiful ornamentation surrounding the central component has been the source of inspiration for wreaths throughout the centuries, sometimes referred to as Della Robbia wreaths. The exhibition presents a comprehensive view of the Della Robbia terracotta tradition. Della Robbia: Sculpting with color in Renaissance Florence is on view in the West Wing of the National Gallery through June 4.

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