Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts exhibits Della Robbia sculptures


Lynn Pryde

Powerful expressions of faith, hope and love are manifested in brilliant colours that characterise the Luca della Robbia glazed terracotta sculptures from the Renaissance, explored in an exhibition organised by the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, the United States of America.

Their shine and colours, including deep cerulean blues and opaque whites, remain unchanged from the time of their creation — a lasting testament to Renaissance ingenuity. Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) created the groundbreaking glazing technique in the fifteenth-century, and the exhibition showcases forty-six works of art by his family and associated workshops.

‘The Visitation’ (about 1445, Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, Italy), an extraordinary masterpiece, is one of six important loans from Italy that have never been seen in the United States of America before. The Brooklyn Museum’s lunette of the ‘Resurrection of Christ’ (circa 1520–24) is presented at the Museum of Fine Arts following a year-long conservation project — one of several undertaken for the exhibition. After debuting at the Museum of Fine Arts in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery from August 9th to December 4th, 2016, the exhibition travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington from February 5th to June 4th, 2017. Presented with generous support from Patti and Jonathan Kraft. Conservation work for this exhibition was made possible by Marchesi Antinori S.p.A.

The Della Robbia family workshop flourished in Florence, Italy, for about a century, producing expressive artworks for all spheres of life. Luca della Robbia created his glazed terracotta technique in the fifteenth-century, and it was immediately recognised and celebrated as a new inventiveness. He partook its secrets with his nephew and principal collaborator Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), who in turn passed them on to his sons Giovanni (1469–1529/30), Luca the Younger (1475–1548), Marco (1468–1534), Francesco (1477–1527/28) and Girolamo (1488–1566). Portraying both sacred and secular themes, Luca della Robbia sculpture gained a strong presence in public spaces — from street corners to churches — and private homes.

The exhibition begins with works made for domestic settings, exploring notions of hope and prosperity for one’s city and family. Luca della Robbia sculpture was often acquired to mark significant family events such as marriages and births and the objects became part of the lives and histories of their owners. Giovanni della Robbia’s brightly coloured lunette of the ‘Resurrection of Christ’ (circa 1520–24, Brooklyn Museum) once adorned the upper section of a garden gate in the Tuscan villa of the Florentine Antinori family, who commissioned it in the early sixteenth-century. The family’s coat of arms marks the lower corners of the eleven-foot-wide relief, and the Marchese Antinori — possibly Niccolò or his son Alessandro — is prominently shown praying before the resurrected Christ. The sculpture is composed of forty-six separate pieces and underwent a year-long conservation treatment in preparation for the exhibition, with generous support from the current generation of the Antinori family. The relief, now restored to its original splendour, has not left Brooklyn since it was donated to the museum in 1898.

Portrait busts were also popular in Florentine Renaissance homes. ‘Bust of a Young Boy’ (circa 1475, Museo Nazionale del Bargello) offers a touching example of naturalism, expressed through the child’s fleeting expression and parted lips that convey a sense of living breath. Like other contemporary portrayals, the work illustrates a new Renaissance interest in capturing the individuality of children. Naturalistic representation using the Della Robbia technique is also demonstrated in ‘Virgin and Child with Lilies’ (circa 1460–70) from the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection, in which the baby Jesus acts like a real child, turning away from his mother to reach for the lilies, the figures seated on a grassy meadow of flowers.

The extraordinary loan of Luca della Robbia’s ‘The Visitation’ (circa 1445) — his masterpiece in the medium he invented — travels to Boston from the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, Italy, shown in the United States of America for the first time. The sculptural group of two figures anchors the second section of the exhibition, which highlights expressions of love — especially the bond between mother and child. It presents an intensely moving interaction between Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. ‘The Visitation’ was widely reproduced in the twentieth-century — there were at least six casts in American collections by 1910, including one in the Renaissance cast gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts’ original Copley Square building. The work also attracted at least one American artist of the time — John Singer Sargent made a sketch of the sculpture, probably from the original group in Pistoia, Italy.

Across from ‘The Visitation,’ the ‘Nativity with Gloria in Excelsis’ (circa 1465–70) from the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection shows a newborn Jesus at the heart of the composition, framed by Mary and Joseph, both of whom are kneeling. Their poses signal their recognition of the child’s holiness and provide models of prayer for worshippers. Angels hold a musical staff with the words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (translates from Latin to: Glory to God in the highest), the opening to a hymn sung during Mass.

Several ‘Madonna and Child’ reliefs, by far the most common form of domestic sculpture in the Renaissance, are on view. Particularly fine examples come from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the National Gallery of Art and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. These reliefs share exemplary technical quality, effective expression and the power to inspire devotion. Two versions of Luca della Robbia’s ‘Madonna of the Niche’ shown side by side, one from the Museum of Fine Arts (circa 1445–55) and one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (circa 1445–55), depict a tender moment between Mary and Jesus, with the baby leaning into his mother’s body, her left hand wrapping around him and her right hand clasping his right foot as if to keep him from stepping too far.

The important loan of a relatively unknown work by Luca della Robbia, the large-scale ‘Madonna and Child’ (circa 1450–60) from the Oratory of San Tommaso Aquino in Florence, demonstrates his mastery of a wider range of colours than the classic blue and white, showing that his primary use of the two colors in other works was an artistic choice. Conservation of the piece was funded by ‘Friends of Florence,’ a United States of America non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts located in the city and region of Florence, Italy.

Andrea della Robbia generally followed his uncle’s choice of blue and white, but his ‘Mother of Sorrows’ (circa 1525, Saint Louis Art Museum) demonstrates his exploration of an expanded palette to enhance the emotion expressed in the face and mourning gesture of Mary. The sculpture, meant to evoke a sympathetic response, is thought to be part of a group that included the body of Jesus as the focus of Mary’s grief. A monumental piece by Andrea della Robbia, ‘Prudence’ (circa 1475), a personification of one of the cardinal virtues, features an abundance of greens and yellows in a particularly impressive garland filled with grapes, pine cones, cucumbers, lemons and a variety of other fruits. The roundel has been restored by conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who have reconfigured the garland based on its original sequence, discovered during the project.

In addition to further experimentation with colour, other works show the Della Robbia leaving sections of clay unglazed. The flesh of both Mary and Jesus represented in Giovanni della Robbia’s ‘Pietà’ (circa 1510–1520, National Gallery of Art) is rendered in unglazed terracotta, making the sculpture less brilliant in appearance and thereby more sombre and appropriate for its religious function, helping to inspire contemplation.

Expressions of faith are further explored in the exhibition’s final section, which also showcases the development of the glazed terracotta technique beyond the Della Robbia family, featuring several works by a rival workshop established around 1480 by the sculptor Benedetto Buglioni (1459/60–1521). While one Renaissance account claims that a woman working in the Della Robbia home and shop leaked trade secrets to Sainti Buglioni, it is more likely that he actually trained with the Della Robbia before establishing his own business.

Santi Buglioni (1494–1576) was a distant relative of Benedetto Buglioni, who trained Buglioni in the art of glazed terracotta, adopted him and left him his workshop. Three of his nearly life-size preaching saints are gathered in the exhibition — ‘Saint Bernardino of Siena’ (circa 1550, private collection), Saint Francis (circa 1550, Uffizi Gallery in Florence) and Saint John of Capistrano (circa 1550, Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The large-scale figures combine unglazed clay with coloured glazes, and their size clearly tested the limits of the material — large cracks are evident in all three of them. Produced about twenty years after Giovanni della Robbia’s death, when Santi Buglioni’s shop was the only one in Florence still creating works in glazed terracotta, the preaching saints stand as the swan song of the disappearing technique, among the very last works to employ it in the Renaissance.

Also in this section is the Museum of Fine Arts ‘St. John the Baptist’ (circa 1505–15) by Giovanni Francesco Rustici, an artist who did not specialise in the Della Robbia technique, but sometimes adopted it for expressive purposes. He likely relied on a member of the Della Robbia workshop to glaze the sculpture, which displays a distinctly creamy colour — an experiment that emphasises the highlights and shadows of the modelled clay and recalls the experimentation with traditional techniques that characterised the work of Giovanni Francesco Rustici’s friend and mentor, Leonardo da Vinci.

While the Della Robbia workshop in Florence essentially dissolved around 1530, Girolamo della Robbia continued to produce sculpture in France, creating work for King Francis I, who favoured the most up-to-date Italian styles. A series of Girolamo della Robbia’s busts, meant to be set into roundels, is on display in the exhibition, including his 1529 portrait of Francis I, King of France, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is the only identifiable independent portrait of a known sitter by a member of the Della Robbia workshop.

The use of glazed terracotta declined in the sixteenth-century, as marble and bronze became the preferred materials for sculpture, but the medium experienced a renaissance during the nineteenth-century. Isabella Stewart Gardner, for example, acquired two Della Robbia works in the process of furnishing her Venetian-style palazzo in Boston. One of them, a ‘Sacramental Tabernacle’ (the 1470s, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) attributed to Andrea della Robbia, is on view in the exhibition.

American collectors who could not locate or afford original Della Robbia’s instead bought fine reproductions, made in Florentine ceramic factories that had developed a technique that mimicked the pure, opaque colours and hard, shiny surface characteristic of the original Renaissance works. ‘The Virgin Adoring the Child’ (circa 1910), modelled after a work by Andrea della Robbia, was made by the Cantagalli workshop in Florence and purchased in Italy around 1912 by a family in Massachusetts.

Exhibitions have increasingly become, one of the strongholds behind our publication, and we have no intention whatsoever to neglect this fascinating side of cultural display. However, we must ask our readers if there is any particular exhibition or exposition you would like us to cover in our pages? If so, feel free to share your viewpoints with us, which are more than esteemed by leaving a response to this article, and further suggestions for future articles, or constructive criticism in the comment section. Plus, you may prefer to subscribe to our newsletter by filling out the form below in order to keep yourself refreshed with our most contemporary publishings.

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