ALTHOUGH he stands in a somewhat different category, Luca della Robbia deserves to rank with the three greatest sculptors of the first half of the fifteenth century,Ghiberti, Donatello, and Della Quercia. Lacking their originality and their higher gifts of conception, he yet achieved in his own day a reputation equal to theirs, and this reputation posterity has confirmed. The founder and chief of a family of artists who continued his work to the end of the century, he, still remaining a realist, yet contrived to imbue his works with so profound a sentiment, so much grace, and so much naïveté, that few Renaissance artists so closely approach the classic in style.
Many writers have paid Luca della Robbia their tributes of praise, but to our thinking none has given a truer summary of his qualities in fewer words than the Marquis de Laborde, in his monograph upon the `Château du Bois de Boulogne.’ He writes:—
“Luca was a sculptor of the first rank. He set himself to seek beauty through the earnest study of classic models, through persevering imitation of nature, through purity of form, through truth of expression, and through graceful variation of pose; and he was so far successful that even in the face of Ghiberti’s overpowering glory, and even in rivalry with Donatello, he was able to make his name equal to theirs in Florence itself. Such were his talents that he might have attained eminence had he done no more than join his contemporaries in that broad fifteenth-century highroad of art which had been opened for them by Niccola Pisano. But he did more; impatient of the slow processes of sculpture in marble, and perhaps weary of the monotony of its whiteness, he sought for a new path, or strayed into a long-abandoned one, and struck out for himself. Whatever may have led him into the byway, whether he had seen the colored terra-cottas of the ancients, whether he had in mind the painted sculptures of the middle ages, or whether his own initiative led him to attempt to fuse the sister arts of sculpture and painting, there is no more interesting figure than that of this man, who re-discovered and taught to his family an art which for two centuries was to be monopolized by those who bore the name of Della Robbia.”
To affirm, as some critics have done, that Luca della Robbia was entirely under the influence of Ghiberti’s mysticism, and only rarely felt the naturalistic impress of that school of which Donatello was the great representative, is an over-statement. M. Rio, who has shown himself the warmest partisan of mysticism in the art of the Italian Renaissance, claims for Luca the honor of having revolted against naturalism. “The credit of having kept sculpture in a path so opposed to contemporary prejudices,” he writes, “must be shared by three men, all advanced in age when Donatello died, but who outlived him long enough to change the course into which he had directed contemporary art. These men were Luca della Robbia, Desiderio da Settignano, and Mino da Fiesole.” This statement may be true to some extent, but it is surely misleading to add, as Rio does, that because of the influence of these men the study of the antique marbles in the Medici gardens “came to occupy only a secondary place in the education of the best-known Florentine artists.” The bas-reliefs of the `Singing Gallery’ are alone quite sufficient to demolish, in regard to Luca at least, any such theory. Indeed, it is impossible to misunderstand the influence which classic art must have had upon his genius when we look at this work. Luca’s naturalism is more temperate than the naturalism of Donatello, but it is quite sufficiently marked, and especially in this, his greatest work, to falsify any such sweeping statement. The truth is that Luca cannot be ranked as either wholly naturalistic or wholly mystic in his art. The two influences swayed him conjointly, and neither ever completely outweighed the other. In a word, the education which Ghiberti may himself have given Luca della Robbia never effaced Luca’s profound admiration for Donatello. . . .
If we were obliged to briefly summarize the preëminent qualities of Luca’s art, we should be tempted to call them simplicity and nobility. Symmetry is also one of his prime characteristicsa symmetry so perfect that it sometimes recalls the sculpture of a previous age, yet without its monotony. To fully recognize these qualities, we should not confine our studies to his works in terra-cotta alone. The latter unquestionably brought him his wide renown, but on the other hand, they have done no little wrong to his true genius. Luca’s name has been so often connected with works in terra-cotta which were produced in the decadence of that style during later years that amateurs in general have come to regard him, while no doubt an artist of the greatest talent, yet as one whose distinguishing characteristics are amiability and grace. But Luca had higher and stronger qualities. Indeed, we must repeat that it is not in his works in Della Robbia ware at all, but in the bas-reliefs executed for the `Singing Gallery’ of the Cathedralexecuted when he was still young in years but already mature in talentthat we must turn if we would see him at his very best. If he was unquestionably and above all a Quattrocentist, if he knew how to be most supple in his workmanship, yet he could also give his personages attitudes so full of calm and dignity,. and expressions so noble, that we may, without partisanship, rank him among the greatest sculptors of his day. . . .
Luca’s death did not check the production of the Della Robbia reliefs. Indeed, a great number of enamelled terra-cottas were produced by Andrea, his nephew and successor, before Luca’s death. But although taught and educated by Luca himself, Andrea stamped his own productions with an individuality which makes them in general easy to distinguish from those of his uncle. Master to the full of Luca’s finest qualities of suppleness and, grace, and, indeed, often surpassing him in these respects, Andrea, on the other hand, cannot be defended from the charge of over-delicacy, and never succeeded in imparting to his figures that strength and nobility by which Luca atoned for frequent over-minuteness in the treatment of de-tails. Lovely as they are,and they are invariably lovely,Andrea’s Virgins (and, like many Renaissance sculptors, Andrea wrought the effigy of the Virgin oftener than any other subject) are far less living than those of the elder sculptor; and if they evince a genuine striving after the ideal, their expressions are, on the other hand, sometimes a trifle affected, and the modelling is somewhat too soft and round.
But though Andrea was incontestably inferior to his uncle, and did not possess either the latter’s originality or strength, it is not fair, nevertheless, to attribute the whole of this inferiority to lesser genius on his part. It should be remembered that while Luca lived in the first half of the fifteenth century, Andrea was not born until 1435, and that it was not until after 1450 that he began to wield the chisel. He was, at least, no more inferior to Luca than his own age was inferior to those nobler days in art during which Luca had wrought.FROM THE FRENCH.
( Originally Published 1901 )
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