DOCUMENTS relating to the Florentine family of della Robbia enable us to state that Luca the sculptor was born in 1400, in the house of his fore-fathers in Via S. Egidio. In 1446, with his brother Marco and his nephew Andrea, he removed to a house in Via Guelfa, in which he resided until his death. This street was anciently called Via della Robbia. As in the case of a great many artists of the Renaissance, we have few documents concerning :Luca della Robbia. He is. sometimes mentioned in the account books of the wardens of S. Maria del Fiore, and we find an entry in his name on the registers of the Catasto Chiave (Appendix I.). It is probable that one of the principal causes of this absence of documents referring to the artists of the Renaissance is owing to the constant plundering and burning of houses, churches, and sacristies in the fifteenth century. Also in the time of the plague furniture and papers, where the contagion had penetrated, were given to the flames, and many family records have consequently been lost to us. Thus, with the exception of a few statements which have been proved inaccurate by authentic records, we must rely on his biographer, Giorgio Vasari, for most of the facts of Luca della Robbia’s life.
What appears certain is that “Luca was carefully reared and educated until he could not only read and write, but also, according to the custom of most Florentines, had learnt to cast accounts, so far as he was likely to require them. Afterwards he was placed by his father to learn the art of the goldsmith.” Most of the artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries began with this craft, which was considered by them to be among the highest, and it is owing, no doubt, to this training that they became such excellent sculptors. It was this that gave them their extraordinary facility in composing and modelling both quickly and skilfully, as well as a mastery over detail and a capacity for finish which they considered to be unattainable by other means.
Vasari informs us that ” Luca having learnt to draw and model in wax, his confidence increased, and he set himself to attempt works in marble and bronze. In these he succeeded tolerably well, and this caused him to abandon altogether the goldsmith’s trade, and give himself entirely to sculpture, insomuch that he did nothing but work with his chisel all day, and by night he practised himself in drawing. This he did with so much zeal, that when his feet were frozen with cold he kept them in a basket of shavings to warm them, so that he might not be compelled to discontinue his drawings.”
It is surprising that before the age of thirty no authenticated work made by Luca della Robbia has been assigned to him with documentary evidence, although he must surely have given proofs of his talent long before that time. It has been suggested that by searching among the nooks and corners of the Cathedral of Florence, hidden treasures, wrought by his hand, may still be brought to light. A work of his youth would be to us a valuable guide, enabling us to ascertain under which master’s influence he had been trained.
We can judge for ourselves that in technical skill he often equals Ghiberti, whom several authorities in art declare to have been his master. On the other hand, in many of Luca della Robbia’s first works we find an unconscious tendency to imitate Donatello, of whom he possessed the vigour and originality. Later on in his artistic career we find in him an independent and personal type.
Luca dedicated himself most particularly to the exquisite details of the human features, giving them such varied expressions of love, joy, and sorrow, that few artists of his time surpassed him. He must have had a special predilection for children, and studied them with tender attention, to have succeeded as he did in making of his infants such “lovely living creatures.” Nearly all his works bear the stamp of a profoundly pious feeling, and we might say that his inner spirituality is impressed on them. Although he was very religious, he was never exaggerated in the artistic manifestations of his devotion. No doubt, on account of his known piety, most of his commissions were for churches and religious congregations, and thus nearly all his subjects, except the decorations for a few palaces, are purely religious.
Luca della Robbia excels wonderfully in the art of draping his figures. The longitudinal folds he gives to the mantles of his Virgins have the type of classic elegance. He seemed to be capable of doing everything well, and he wrought with equal facility in bronze, in marble, and afterwards in terra-cotta. Vasari says of him : ” Luca, be it observed, though he passed from one occupation to another, from marble to bronze, from bronze to terra-cotta, was not induced to these changes by idle levity, or because he was, as too many are found to be, capricious, unstable, and discontented with his vocation, but because he was by nature disposed to the search for discoveries, and also his necessities compelled him to seek an occupation which should be in harmony with his tastes, while it was less fatiguing and more profitable.” According to Vasari, “he drew skilfully and gracefully.” We have reason to suppose that our artist was of a serious and quiet disposition, without jealousy, envy, and egoism. It is known that he sought to calm and pacify Michelozzo, when that artist was rightly enraged against the in-justice of the wardens of the Cathedral of Florence. Between Luca and Michelozzo sprang up a life-long friendship, cemented by mutual esteem and admiration for each other’s talent.
He and the other artists of his time seem to have appeared at the moment when there was plenty of work for all to do. Florence, enriched by its commerce, had erected numerous and splendid buildings, which were ready to be embellished by painting and sculpture.
For half-a-century and more the artistic workers were able to find occupation, by filling up the vacant niches, placing reliefs on lunettes of doors, and adorning endless churches and palaces. Every stone, every monument of that time bears the stamp of grandeur and beauty. From the mansions of the high and mighty of the land, to the humblest shrine in the crowded streets, none remains without its ornamentation.
There remains no tradition to tell us if any feminine influence entered Luca della Robbia’s life. The types of his Madonnas are so different one from the other, that we have no reason to suppose that any of his models had a claim to his affections. He remained a bachelor all his life, and devoted himself to his relations, especially to his favourite nephew and pupil Andrea, to whom he taught his art, and confided the secret of his discovery of glazed enamel. Towards the end of his life we are told that he expressed some doubts as to whether in teaching his secret to his favourite nephew he had acted unjustly towards the other members of his family. His life seems to have been a life of frugality and labour, without passions and adventures, except those connected with his scientific discoveries and experiments. His steady application and quiet perseverance in overcoming difficulties led to his great success and undying fame.
From 1470 to 1480 there is a great gap in the production of his works, and without doubt he passed the end of his long and active career in guiding the works of his nephews and great-nephews. In 1471 he was elected president of the Artists’ Guild, but his great age and his infirmity compelled him to decline this honour, which shows, however, in what consideration he was held by the citizens of Florence. A document lately discovered records the refusal, stating the reason for it (Appendix II.).
Vasari gives a description of the portrait of Luca della Robbia looking at himself in a mirror, painted with great care by his own hand. The features are massive and grave, and the head enveloped in heavy folds of drapery. It was said that Andrea del Sarto painted Luca della Robbia’s portrait in one of the frescoes in the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, but Baldinucci thinks it was Andrea della Robbia, and not Luca, whom Andrea del Sarto meant to represent under the garb of an old man dressed in red, leaning on a stick. It has also been said that the last circular bas-relief on the façade of the Hospital of S. Paolo, facing the corner of Via dei Fossi, was intended to represent Luca. Follini writes that on the ceiling, on the side of the large windows in the Fabbrica degli Uffizi e Real Galleria, there is among the decorations the portrait of Luca della Robbia. Leader Scott, in describing a little statuette that he ascribes to Luca, in possession of Mr. Temple Leader, says : ” The face is certainly the same type which we see in the portraits of the della Robbia family, painted by Andrea del. Sarto, in the cloister of the Santissima Annunziata, and is precisely the same face which he himself sculptured over the door of the sacristy of the Cathedral.”
The portrait of Luca by Vasari that we illustrate is in the Palazzo Vecchio in the ” sala di Cosimo il vecchio.”
Luca della Robbia died in 1481, on the 20th of February, and was buried in the Church of S. Pier Maggiore. His epitaph ran as follows :
“Terra vivi per me cara e gradita Che all’ acqua e a’ ghiacci come il marmo induri, Per che quanto men cedi o ti maturi, Tanto più la mia fama in terra ha vita”
which has been translated as follows :
” O live for me, dear land, and may you vie With marble that can storm and frost defy : So time the less you cede the more mature My fame on earth the longer will endure.”
A few popular and pleasing legends have been transmitted to us about Luca della Robbia.
It is said that, after having been restored to health by the pure mountain air and the tender care of the inhabitants of Gavinana, near S. Marcello, he left as a votive offering two of his works to adorn the village church. The mountaineers still show with pride the token of gratitude of this great and good artist, who, although he lived in a period of sordid passions, was an example of virtue and industry.
Another legend runs that Luca placed the written secret of his discovery of glazed enamel in the hollow of the head of one of his cherubs. It is reported that many of these heads have been broken for the purpose of finding the secret. The head of the Infant Jesus of the splendid bas-relief of the della Robbia ware in the Church of S. Giovanni in Sugano, near San Casciano (Val di Peso), is known to have been broken, in the hope that it might contain the secret. A part of the head was found many years afterwards in a garden not far distant from the church.
Posterity has assigned to Luca della Robbia the place he deserves among the great artists of the fifteenth century, and Florence has every right to be proud of this popular and fascinating sculptor, whose works are so characteristic of the lovely Tuscan cities.
Although my task is mainly to treat of Luca della Robbia and his works, it is necessary to indicate the principal characteristics of his nephew and pupil, Andrea, to enable us to give, as nearly as is possible, the due attributions to these two great artists.
Though Andrea began his artistic career under Luca, and, we may say, was never entirely free from his influence and guidance, there is between them a decided difference of feeling, which reveals itself clearly in their respective productions. Andrea was born thirty-seven years after Luca. After his uncle’s death, and even before, when he worked on his own account, we find the stamp of a later period ; the Florentine public having decidedly changed its taste in art, commissioned from the Robbias various complicated scenes for the decoration of churches, instead of the simple compositions of a former age.
Luca’s love for the antique is not repeated in Andrea. The uncle was pious, the nephew profoundly so, and devoted to the Virgin Mary, which accounts for his Madonnas being even more numerous than those of Luca. Andrea is represented very scantily in Florence, for he mostly worked for the convents and churches away from the capital ; while Luca’s works are nearly all confined to Tuscany, and especially to Florence. Those we find in distant provinces must have been transported there long after his death.
We have reason to think that Andrea was a quicker modeller than his uncle, but not always such a careful one. Andrea being able to turn to profit his uncle’s discovery of glazed enamel, set immediately to work in it, instead of having to spend years in long and patient studies and experiments, which accounts for the greater number of his terra-cotta productions.
Luca della Robbia hardly ever repeated the subjects of his bas-reliefs, while we constantly find in Andrea the same motives, many of them being taken from his uncle’s works.