Artist – Luca And Andera Della Robbia

BORN 1400: DIED 1482 BORN 1435: DIED 1525


BORN in 1400, Luca della Robbia was the son of Simone di Marco della Robbia, a shoemaker, who lived in the Via Sant’ Egidio at Florence. Here the boy grew up, and, after receiving a thorough education in all that was held necessary for a youth of his class, was apprenticed, according to Vasari, to the aged Leonardo di Ser Giovanni, then the best goldsmith in the city. But higher ambitions stirred his young heart, and, fired by the example of Lorenzo Ghiberti, who probably gave him his earliest training in art, he soon left the goldsmith’s shop to work in bronze and marble. Such was the ardor with which young Luca devoted himself to his profession that Vasari assures us he forgot to eat or sleep, and spent the day in drawing and the night in modelling, careless of cold and hunger.

We know nothing of his earliest works, but by the time he was thirty his talents had attracted the attention of the Medici. On their recommendation he was employed by the administrators of the Cathedral works to execute ten bas-reliefs for the decoration of one of the organ galleries under that fair cupola which Brunelleschi had just raised to be the wonder of all Florence. The commission for this work, a worthy task for any Florentine master, was given to Luca in 1431; and two years later the decoration of the other organ gallery on the opposite side was assigned to Donatello, then at the height of his fame. During the next eight or nine years Luca worked at these bas-reliefs, and we may infer that his employers were satisfied with the result from the fact that the price of sixty florins, originally agreed upon for the larger bas-reliefs, was raised to seventy in consideration of the time and labor expended on them. . . .

Before these immortal works had left Luca’s studio, fresh commissions came in from all sides. Once more he and Donatello were required to compete for the execution of a colossal head to be placed on the top of Brunelleschi’s cupola; and when this project was abandoned for lack of funds a joint commission was given them to carve two altars for the chapels of St. Peter and St. Paul in the Duomo. Again, however, the money was not forth-coming; and Donatello never even attempted his share of the task, while Luca only carved two unfinished bas-reliefs, representing the deliverance from prison of St. Peter and his crucifixion, fine fragments bearing strong marks of Ghiberti’s influence, which are now preserved in the National Museum, Florence.

It is pleasant to learn that Luca, who was so often brought into competition with Donatello, had the greatest admiration for his illustrious rival, and inspired his own nephew, Andrea, with the same veneration. When Andrea himself was old, and long after Luca’s death, he often spoke with enthusiasm of the master, and told young Giorgio Vasari with pride that he had been present at the great Donatello’s funeral.

In May, 1437, Luca was entrusted with a still more honorable task,—the execution of the five lozenge-shaped bas-reliefs which were still wanting to complete the series representing the progress of civilization on the base of Giotto’s Tower. All five were copied from Giotto’s own designs, and, but for the sharpness and clearness of the work and the loving care with which every leaf of the foliage is carved, have little in common with Luca’s finer style. But the longest and most laborious task on which Luca was employed in Santa Maria del Fiore was the execution of the bronze doors of the sacristy under the organ gallery. These had been originally assigned to Donatello in 1437, and it was not until 1446 that the administrators of the Cathedral works, tired of awaiting that master’s pleasure, gave the commission to Michelozzo, Maso di Bartolommeo, and Luca della Robbia. Maso died, and Michelozzo being absent, Luca completed the doors alone in 1464.

Before he had even begun to work at these gates, however, he had already entered on the second period of his career, and had, in Vasari’s words, enriched the world by another art, “nuova, utile, et bellissima.” His fertile genius, ever seeking for new means of expression, could not rest content with the slow production of works in bronze and marble. Some easier, less costly material was needed for the more prompt and spontaneous expression of those countless forms of beauty which thronged upon his vision, and it is Luca’s glory to have discovered an art exactly suited to his wants. It has been sometimes supposed that, as Vasari intimates, Luca della Robbia was the first to apply a glaze of enamel to pottery; but this is a mistake, for majolica was manufactured in Italy long before his time. On the other hand, there seems little doubt that he was the first to apply this stanniferous enamel to works of sculpture in terra-cotta, and thus give the clay he moulded the charms of transparency and brightness, while at the same time he rendered it durable enough to resist many centuries of exposure to the air.

How long he labored and how many times he failed in his experiments we do not learn, but by 1443 his success was complete, for in that year he was commanded to make a relief of the `Resurrection’ in glazed terra-cotta for the lunette above the sacristy door in the Duomo. There the work is still to be seen to-day. The figures are white on a blue ground, and little other color is introduced; but in the relief of the `Ascension,’ executed by Luca three years afterwards, and which occupies the space above the other sacristy door, green and brown and yellow are all employed to throw out the principal figures and avoid confusion. In the contract for this relief the colors to be used are specified, and it is expressly said, “Mons sit sui coloris, arbores etiam sui coloris,”—a fact which sufficiently refutes the idea that Luca confined himself solely to blue and white, although it is true that as a rule his figures are white, and that he employed other colors only for the subordinate parts of the picture, while the tones he used are more delicate than those of his later followers.

Every day the new art became more popular with the Florentines, and Luca was called upon to adorn one building after another. His reliefs were not exclusively employed to ornament churches, and several Florentine palaces were decorated with shields and medallions by his hand. His masterpiece in this kind was Piero de’ Medici’s study, a small room which he decorated entirely, from the ceiling to the floor, with reliefs and enamelled tiles, “a rare thing,” says Vasari, “and very useful for the summer-time.”

Occasionally we find Luca still working in marble as well as in terra-cotta, and both are happily blended in the tabernacle now in a church at the village of Peretola, which bears a marble relief of a Pietà surrounded by a terra-cotta frieze, and also in the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, Bishop of Fiesole, which stands at present in the Church of Santa Trinità, Florence.

Luca’s powers and industry showed no falling off as he advanced in years, and the vaulting of the Chapel of San Jacopo at San Miniato, executed when he was past sixty, is the finest and most complete scheme of roof decoration which he ever accomplished. This work was not completed until 1466, and is the last one of Luca’s of which any record remains. Five years afterwards he was elected head of the Artists’ Guild, but declined to accept the honor —the greatest to which a Florentine master could aspire— on the score of his great age and increasing infirmities.

In 1446, at about the time that his glazed terra-cotta work first became famous, he had bought a house in the Via Guelfa, where he spent the remainder of his life with his two orphaned nephews, Andrea and Simone, the sons of his only brother, Marco. He had never married, and adopted them as his own children; and while Simone followed his father’s and grandfather’s trade of shoemaking, Andrea had been trained by his uncle to his own art, and was already a distinguished sculptor. To him Luca left, as his most precious possession, the practice of the art which he had invented, while to Simone he bequeathed the whole of his modest fortune. His reasons for this division are fully explained in the quaintly worded will which he made on February 19, 1471. Since he had in his lifetime taught Andrea his art, while he had never taught Simone anything, since the practice of the said art which Andrea inherited from Luca was sufficiently remunerative to support his family honorably, and as all the goods Luca had were not equal to this art which Andrea had received as a gift from Luca, and since it was well that Simone should have his share, and that no one should be able to reproach him, Luca, with injustice, he now left all his remaining fortune to the said Simone, his nephew.

After making his will Luca lived eleven years more in the same house with his nephews, who were both married and had children of their own. At length, on February 20, 1482, he died, and was buried in his own sepulchre in the Church of San Pietro Maggiore, leaving a long roll of great works and the memory of a noble life to be the glory of his native Florence.

The pains which he had spent on his nephew Andrea’s training had already met with their reward; and when Luca closed his eyes on this world he had the satisfaction of knowing that he left a successor well fitted to continue his work and perpetuate the name which he had made illustrious.

Born in 1435, Andrea della Robbia had married when he was about thirty, and in 1470, according to the tax-papers of that year, he had already three children by his wife, Nanna, aged twenty-one. He led the same simple, hard-working life as his uncle before him, never leaving the old house, where he reared seven sons to be his helpers. During the ninety years of his long life the new art enjoyed an ever-increasing popularity, and attained a fuller development than ever before. It was now applied with great success to a number of different objects. Altars of every size and description, friezes, statues, and shields, issued in countless numbers from the workshop in the Via Guelfa. While Luca’s activity had been almost entirely confined to Florence, Andrea’s works are to be found not only in every part of Tuscany, but among all the cities and convents of Umbria and Romagna.

After his uncle’s death he was employed on works for the Cathedral, which have for the most part perished. In 1489 he finished a beautiful lunette for the Duomo of Prato. Two years later he completed a frieze of garlands and medallions for Santa Maria delle Carceri in the same town. He was back at Florence soon afterwards, working at the Hospital di San Paolo, and both he and his sons were witnesses of that great religious revival by which Savonarola made the close of the fifteenth century memorable.

The whole of Andrea’s family, we learn from Vasari, were deeply attached to the friar of San Marco, and, like so many of the best Florentine artists, devoted their art to his cause. More than this, two of Andrea’s sons—Marco, the eldest, and Paolo—took the vows, and received the Dominican habit at the hands of Savonarola himself. On that terrible night when the faithful Piagnoni rallied in the Convent of San Marco, three of Andrea’s, sons were among its defenders, and the best account we have of those last sad scenes was given by Fra Luca, otherwise known as Marco della Robbia, in his examination before Savonarola’s judges. He it is who describes how, as. night closed on that anxious day, the little band of armed monks met in the church, and how the frate, standing calm and unmoved in their midst with the sacrament in his hands, bade them lay down their arms; how, too, some of them disobeyed his word, and he among the rest struck wildly with his. sword at the furious mob who rushed in to seize their victim. We know that it was all in vain, that Fra Luca and his brave friends were overpowered, and that Savonarola died. But the Della Robbias were among the faithful Piagnoni who revered his memory to the last; and we learn from Vasari that they commemorated his name in medals, bearing Savonarola’s head on one side, and on the other a fortified city with the sword of the Lord descending upon her, as he had prophesied.

In his last years the aged Andrea executed several works for the Dominicans, to whom he was bound by so many ties. He adorned an altar in the Church of San Marco itself. For the monks of La Quercia at Viterbo he accomplished several important works between 1498 and 1514; and a Ma-donna, his last work of all, was destined for Pian di Mugnone, a house in the country, belonging to the monks of San Marco. This was finished in 1515, when Andrea was already eighty years old.

Ten years after he died, on the fourth of August, 1525, and was buried by the side of his uncle and master, the great Luca, in the Church of San Pietro Maggiore.

The art of Luca and Andrea della Robbia


THE monuments of the Robbia school are well distributed throughout Tuscany; they are found also in the Marches and in Umbria, and as far south as Rome and Naples. Many of them have travelled to the museums and private collections of northern Europe, and a few have reached the United States.

These sculptured monuments are made of terra-cotta, and covered with an opaque stanniferous glaze, in which the colors are mixed as in enamel. The figured reliefs are sometimes white against a blue background, but often exhibit a variety of colors. The popular impression—for which Vasari is responsible—that the art of making these glazes was discovered by Luca della Robbia, that it was preserved as a secret, and perished with his school, has proved to be unfounded. Opaque glazes were applied to sculpture during the Gothic period in Spain, and found their way to Italy long before Luca della Robbia was born. They disappear in the late Renaissance, partly because paint and varnish produced brilliant effects on terra-cotta with less labor, and partly because stucco and paintings on canvas were cheaper than sculptures in marble and terra-cotta. The spirit of the age also demanded brilliant reds and naturalistic flesh-colors, and these were impossible in opaque glazes.

( Originally Published 1901 )

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