WE may divide the della Robbia sculpture into three classesfirst, those of which no repetitions are found, as they were expressly ordered from the fabbrica by congregations and families. On most of these we shall find the coats of arms or devices of those by whom they were commissioned. The second category, which is very numerous, comprises mostly reproductions of Luca’s and Andrea’s works of minor merit ; they are repetitions of the same subject, representing especially the Madonna and Infant Child. Many are to be found on the walls of streets and palaces, and on country road-sides. The third category comprises the coats of arms of families, municipalities, convents, and hospitals, and these are the most numerous. They are at the present day exactly imitated and copied by the Ginori-Richard fabbrica at Doccia, and the Cantagalli fabbrica out of Porta Romana in Florence.
The first of Luca della Robbia’s works of which we have an undisputed date (1431), are the monuments for the organ of S. Maria del Fiore in Florence, which are constructed on a very grand scale. ” The wardens commissioned them from Luca, who, in addition to his reputation, had a further recommendation from Messer Vieri de’ Medici, an influential and popular citizen, by whom Luca was much beloved. These ornaments were to be placed over the door of the sacristy in the above-named cathedral.” Vasari, to whom we owe these facts, adds : “In the prosecution of this work, Luca executed certain series for the casement, which represent the choristers, who are singing, in different attitudes. To the execution of these, he gave such earnest attention, and succeeded so well, that although the figures are sixteen braccia from the ground, the spectator can, nevertheless, distinguish the inflation of the throat in the singers, and the action of the leader, as he beats time with his hands, and the various modes of playing on different instruments, the choral songs, and the dances which are delineated by the artist.”
Luca, as his text for these “Cantoria,” which are divided into ten magnificent panels, took the 150th Psalm of the Bible, illustrating it on the frieze :
Laudate Dominum in sanctis ejus : laudate eum in firmamento virtutis ejus.
Laudate eum in virtutibus ejus : laudate eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis ejus.
These are engraved on the superior frieze, which represents young men singing.
On the inferior frieze is inscribed the end of the psalm :
Laudate eum in sono tuba : laudate eum in psalterio et cithara.
Laudate eum in tympano et choro : laudate eum in chordis et organo.
Laudate eum in cymbalis benesonantibus : laudate eum in cymbalis jubilationis : omnis spiritus laudet Dominum.
The words in italics represent the eight subjects of the bas-reliefs of the “Cantoria.”
Luca had attained the full maturity of his talent when he produced these groups of dancing children, and scarcely any sculptor of the fifteenth century ever surpassed this singing gallery. Great must have been the difficulties of achieving it with such unequalled perfection, and no other artist since Luca has been known to make a similar attempt.
Symonds justly says : ” Movement has never been suggested with less exaggeration, nor have marble lips been made to utter sweeter and more varied music.” Though there is throughout the “Cantoria ” a reflection of Luca’s deep studies of the antique, there is also a vivid touch of the spirit of the soil and period in which they were executed.
It is a pity that after this ” Cantoria” and a few other bas-reliefs in marble, Luca rarely produced any work wholly wrought in that material ; he sometimes combined it with glazed enamel, producing marvellous effects, as in the tomb of Bishop Federighi and other monuments. Begun in 1431, the ” Cantoria ” was not finished till 1440, and towards the end of his work Luca shows a decided advance.
In 1688, on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Ferdinando with Violante Beatrice of Baviera, these bas-reliefs were taken down from the organ for which they had been executed, to make place for some ornaments in wood which, according to the taste of the public of that time, were decorated with baroque festoons attached to the ancient architectural parts which were hidden by them.
After the “Cantoria” had been lying neglected for many years at the Board of Works of Santa Maria del Fiore, the wardens thought best to hand them over to the Gallery of the Uffizi. In 1836 they wished to have them restored to their ancient place, but this remained for years a matter of dispute. In 1845 the architectural parts were taken down, and the beautiful cornice was thrown into a warehouse. In 1870, by chance, Commendatore de Fabbris found it, covered with mud brought down by the inundations of the Arno. He devoted his energies to urging the authorities to have it taken to the National Museum, to join the ornaments of the ” Singing Gallery,” but pieces were missing, and it was supposed to be impossible to recompose the whole in its former state. A technical committee, however, ascertained that the lost pieces were not essential, and the “Cantoria ” and the cornice were finally skilfully put together by Professor del Moro. The modern parts due to him are the pilasters which separate the bas-reliefs from the superior cornice.
At this point the wardens of S. Maria del Fiore came forward to claim their rights over the ” Cantoria,” and new discussions and disputes arose which were finally ended by the decision of the Minister of Public Instruction, to have the two grand singing galleries of Luca della Robbia, and the one of Donatello, placed in the Museum of the Board of Works of S. Maria del Fiore (Opera del Duomo). Here, after many years of neglect, they are now to be seen and admired, and are certainly better placed for observation than in the dark cathedral without a ray of light to shine on them.
The British Museum has a complete cast of the ” Singing Gallery,” and also a study in gesso duro which appears to be the original sketch by Luca’s own hand.
On the grand cornice of the ” Cantoria,” says Vasari, Luca erected ” two figures of gilded metal, representing two angels, entirely nude, and finished with great skill.” These figures must have disappeared in 1688, when the ornaments of the organ were taken down. They were valued by Bernardo Gambarelli and Pagno di Lapo Portigiani of Fiesole, and Luca was paid ninety lire for them.
Some art historians have stated that Luca entered into competition with other artists for the cast of a colossal statue about this time (1433), but it appears that it was never executed.
In 1437, the wardens entrusted Luca to execute five small historical representations for the Campanile of the Cathedral of Florence. These are placed on that side of the tower which is turned towards the church, and were executed according to the design of Giotto. At that period designs for works in sculpture were generally given to painters. ” They were required to fill the space beside those delineating the arts and sciences previously executed by Andrea Pisano. In the first relief Luca portrayed Donato teaching `Grammar,’ in the second Plato and Aristotle, who represent `Philosophy,’ in the third a figure playing the lute for ‘ Music,’ in the fourth a statue of Ptolemy to signify ‘ Astronomy,’ and in the fifth Euclid for ‘Geometry.’ These reliefs, whether for correctness of design, grace of composition, or beauty of execution, greatly surpass the two completed by Giotto” (Vasari).
Modern art critics place the bas-relief of ” Grammar” as the last executed, and see in it most personal qualities of Luca della Robbia, while in the four others he evidently imitates preceding artists. The attitudes of the teacher and the two scholars have certainly more life in them than the others, and we can classify this as one of Luca’s successful creations. For each of these five reliefs he was paid twenty florins. Padre Richa is the only historian who inclines to attribute to Luca the execution of four statues which decorate another portion of the Campanile.
In 1438 Luca agreed to carve two altars in marble for two chapels in S. Maria del Fiore, one representing “Peter’s Deliverance from Prison,” the other “The Crucifixion of S. Peter.” As no vestige of these altars exists, they were probably never executed. The two reliefs for them are to be seen in the National Museum (Nos. 201, 219). There is much analogy between these bas-reliefs and those of the Campanile. In closely examining each face and figure, we must come to the conclusion that Luca made use of the same model for all of them ; but the model in wax for the altar was given by Donatello, who, as well as Luca, had received the order to execute it, but not having received any payment in advance, he left it entirely in the hands of Luca, who, perhaps from the same motive, left his work unfinished. These fragments make us regret that Luca did not complete the bas-reliefs, in which we find all the qualities he displayed in the “Cantoria.” Mr. Bode observes in them a decided influence of Ghiberti.
The year 1442 is a remarkable one in Luca della Robbia’s work, for we find in the frieze of the Tabernacle of Peretola, his first trial of terra-cotta covered with glazed enamel. It consists of a garland supported by cherub heads. The tabernacle itself is formed by two angels holding a crown of laurels, in the midst of which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost. On the tympanum is a ” Pieta,” and in the upper part -is the figure of God the Father. The tabernacle was executed for the Chapel of S. Luke, in the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova in Florence, and the arms of the Hospital, like the garland of the frieze, are in glazed enamel terra-cotta. M. Marcel Reymond observes that Luca in this monument closely imitated Donatello, and it was his first attempt to render the grief of the angel and S. John by a sorrowful expression. His inexperience, however, is manifest, for the features have not the look he undoubtedly wished to give them.
The Madonna in this bas-relief is different in type from all the other Madonnas in his works. She points with her right hand to the dying Saviour, and presses her left hand to her breast. The expression is worn and aged, an expression that the Master never reproduced in any of his representations of the Mater Dolorosa.
The exact date is not known when this tabernacle was transported from the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova to Peretola, but probably it was in the eighteenth century, when many changes altered the aspect of the chapel (see Cavallucci and Molinier).
After Luca’s first trial of terra-cotta covered with glazed enamel, he soon found that he could do more than he had been trained to. Vasari writes : ” Luca, after having made up the reckoning of what he had received for his works in marble and bronze, and compared it with the time he had expended in their production, perceived that he had made small gains, and that the labour had been excessive. He determined, therefore, to try if he could derive a more profitable return from some other source. Wherefore, reflecting that it cost but little trouble to work in clay, which is easily managed, and that only one thing was required, namely, to find some method by which the work produced in that material should be rendered durable, he considered and reasoned to such good purpose, that he finally discovered a means of protecting such productions from the injuries of time. The matter was in this wise : After having made innumerable experiments, Luca found that if he covered his figures with a coating of glaze formed from the mixture of tin, litharge, antimony, and other minerals and mixtures, carefully prepared by the action of fire in a furnace made for the purpose, the desired effect was produced to perfection, and endless durability might be secured for his works in clay.”
Luca’s object, according to Rio, was not to substitute statues of terra-cotta for marble statues, or to encroach on the domain of an art which he himself cultivated with too much success not to respect its exclusive privilege. He had no intention to stand in competition with statuary, or with painting, as the artists of his school did after him. His aim was to execute bas-reliefs appropriate to the exterior and interior decoration of churches which could replace with advantage the frescoes and mosaics which till then had filled the vacant places in architecture.
Luca preceded Bernard Palissy by about a century, but neither of them laid claim to the invention of enamel. Luca adapted it to sculpture and Bernard Palissy to pottery, but enamelled pottery was known not only to Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks, but also to Italians in the Middle Ages, and was used by them for façades and friezes. In the Museum of Nuremberg there are squares of glazed enamel, blue and white, which it has been ascertained were made between the years 1150 and 1200, and in the Art Museum of Dresden there are also squares of terra-cotta of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Twenty years before Luca perfected his system, Bicci di Lorenzo modelled and glazed a terra-cotta of the ” Coronation of the Virgin,” which still fills the lunette over the Hospital door of S. Egidio in Florence. Bocchi in 1677 writes that on the Piazza of S. Felicità there was to be seen a statue of S. Peter in glazed enamel on a column of granite, very ancient, long before Luca della Robbia lived. The column is still on the Piazza, but the statue has disappeared.
The process known before Luca’s time consisted in covering the terra-cotta with a thin coating of calcina di piomba, which, without changing its natural colour, made it lustrous and durable. Though the invention of glazed enamel cannot be attributed to Luca, he can claim the right to have discovered, after profound studies in chemistry, the improvement he gave to the old process, which consists in covering the clay with the ingredients of glass made opaque with oxide of tin, but even this is said to have been practised with great success by the Persians of the thirteenth century. Charles Perkins observes that the sight of the Spanish and Majorcan pottery, and perhaps the acquaintance with some foreign workmen employed in its manufacture in Florence, must have suggested the, idea of employing their system for art purposes.
Let us give Luca the just and great merit of vastly extending its application, so much so, indeed, that ever since his time it has gone under the name of della Robbia ware. In his hands it became of immense valuea golden vein, though known, not practically explored. In the first trial of its application in the tabernacle of Peretola, is evident the artist’s hesitation to display before the public the result of his discovery, of which he kept the secret, and which after him was jealously guarded as a family treasure for generations. ” The object of Luca della Robbia was, by giving a vitreous surface to the clay model, to save the expense of cutting it in marble, or casting it in bronze. This process was the most successful ever invented to cheapen sculpture and make it in some respects even more durable, without an obvious loss of its finer properties.” Costly monuments would never have been left intact in the localities in which we find the ware of Luca della Robbia. It is owing also to the low price paid for the bas-reliefs in terra-cotta that even poor village churches possess effigies of the Madonna and their patron saints in glazed enamel. Four centuries have not destroyed or even diminished the beauty of Luca della Robbia’s works. They have resisted time and weather, and are as perfect now as when they came out of the furnaces he built in the different localities for which they had been commissioned. Cavaliere Carocci, in his book Il Comune di Firenze,” writes that near Florence, at Calcina, there still exist traces of the furnace which tradition asserts that Luca della Robbia had expressly built when he baked the terra-cotta ornaments for the Church of Impruneta. At Barga, in Garfagna, the Church of the Fornacetta is said to have been raised on the spot of the Robbia furnaces.
“The master,” says Vasari, “was not satisfied with his remarkably useful and charming invention, which is more particularly suitable for places liable to damp, or unfitted for other causes for paintings, but still continued seeking something more ; and instead of making his terra-cotta figures simply white, he added the further invention of giving them colour, to the astonishment and delight of all those who beheld them.” The white that prevails in Luca della Robbia’s glazed enamels was, without doubt, intended to suit the darkened churches and the glare of streets. His discovery was soon made use of at Pesaro for terra-cotta decorations for palaces and churches. In Siviglia there are a great many works in white glazed enamel with ornaments in blue, violet, yellow, and green, all imitations of Luca della Robbia.
Enamel was generally applied by the process of immersion, but in some cases it was applied by the brush. The latter is easily detected by the uneven way the clay is covered, and in some parts it often remains uncovered. Amateurs may be able to distinguish when stanniferous enamel, instead of other varnishes, covers bas-reliefs, when the coating is opaque white, and completely hides the colour of the clay underneath.
We have no records to tell us if Luca della Robbia passed days and nights in sufferings and anguish like Bernard Palissy, in his scientific researches, but if he did not sacrifice his fortune and his furniture, he must, in any case, have met and overcome numerous difficulties before he reached the height of perfection in his discovery, for endless precautions were necessary to prevent the breaking of the clay in the oven, which would have entailed immense losses. Another great difficulty consisted in the fitting of the pieces one into the other, as the Robbia ware was mostly composed of sections, as already mentioned. No less a difficulty was the application of the various glazes to the surfaces of the large retables and medallions, and the regulation of the heat of the furnace to prevent them cracking and coming out in patches, which are so rarely to be found in Luca’s productions, proving his great technical knowledge and skill, and his masterly direction over his workmen.
No modern pottery can equal the Robbia ware in tints and quality of material, and it is doubtful if any will stand the test of time and weather so well.
Many have been the reasons given for the loss of the secret of the glazed enamel. In a letter by Signor Gambini of Pistoja to Professor Contrucci, in 1835, I have found the following passage :–” Owing to experiments made by myself, I firmly believe that the principal cause for which the beautiful invetriata of the della Robbias fell in disuse, was the disappearance of a special kind of clay necessary to form certain parts of the Robbian ware.” Signor Gambini observes that the difference is especially evident in the blue background, which comes out in modern bas-reliefs less even and beautiful, while the white parts cannot be considered inferior to those of the Robbia fabbrica.”
Lastri, in his book, ” Osservatore Fiorentino sugli edifizi della sua patria,” writes that he is not of the opinion that the beauty of the Robbia plastic works consisted so much in their secret process of invetriata, for chemistry has made too great progress not to render it easy to analyse the ingredients of the varnishes used by the Robbias ; but there is a lack of good modellers in clay, and no modern ones have rivalled Luca and Andrea della Robbia in their careful finish of every detail of their work.
The bas-relief of the ” Resurrection,” which was ordered in 1443 to be placed over the door of the sacristy of the Cathedral, shows to what perfection Luca had attained in his discovery of glazed enamel after numerous trials. It was considered so beautiful ” that when fixed up it was admired by every one who beheld it as a truly rare production ” (Vasari).
This bas-relief of the ” Resurrection ” represents Christ rising from the sepulchre ; four angels are by His sides, and the soldiers, guardians of His tomb, are asleep on the ground. The figures are white, and the background is blue. It is the first time that we see in Luca’s works angels hovering in the air, but we shall constantly see them repeated in his bas-reliefs.
Some authors have asserted that this bas-relief of the ” Resurrection” was Luca’s first trial of his discovery of glazed enamel ; but this is not admissible, for surely the wardens of S. Maria del Fiore could not have wished to run the risk, by the first display of a novelty, of bringing on themselves the blame of lavishing the money of the public on works that had not already been sanctioned by art experts and ‘critics. Luca’s first essays must have been in the tabernacle of Peretola, and other works, and the bas-relief of the “Resurrection ” was a crowning success of his wonderful and precious discovery.
The bas-relief (1446) of the ” Ascension ” in the Cathedral is considered even more beautiful than that of the ” Resurrection.” Jesus is represented ascending to Heaven. His Holy Mother and the Apostles are kneeling in two symmetrical groups. The figures are white, with a blue background: ; the grass and the trees are green. The expression of ecstatic rapture on the features has rarely been equalled by any other painter or sculptor of the time.
Perkins says that this first appearance of colours in this bas-relief is important, as they are indications by which the period of any given Robbian work can be guessed at, a matter of no small difficulty ; for while in genuine sculpture it is generally easy for a practised eye to recognise by slight peculiarities of style, not only the artist, but even the period of his life to which any given work belongs, this is almost impossible in enamelled terra-cottas, as their surfaces are covered with a glaze, which veils and hides such indicative characteristics. This bas-relief of the ” Ascension ” was valued by Bernardo Gambarelli and Pagno di Lapo Portigiani of Florence, at 520 lire.
The execution of the bronze doors of the sacristy of the Cathedral was first given to Donatello by a con-tract made in 1437, but as he never commenced the work, in 1446 the wardens of the Cathedral entrusted them to Michelozzo, Maso di Bartolommeo, and Luca della Robbia. Documents have been found which prove that in 1464 these bronze doors came entirely into the hands of Luca, on account of Maso’s death and for other reasons ; but he only received the payment for them in 1474. I will give the description of this work in Vasari’s own words ; being within his memory, it will show us the judgment of the men of his time.
” The bronze doors are divided into ten square compartments or pictures, five on each side, and at each of the angles where these joined, he placed the head of a man, by way of ornament on the border. No two heads were alike, some being young, others old or of middle age, some with beard, others without. All were varied, in short, and in these different modes every one was beautiful of its kind, insomuch that the framework of that door was most richly adorned. In the compartments themselves, the Master represented the Madonna (to begin with the upper part), holding the Infant Christ in her arms, in the first square. A group of infinite grace and beauty, with Jesus coming out of the tomb, in that opposite. Beneath these figures, in each of the first four squares, is the statue of an Evangelist, and below the Evangelists are the four Doctors of the Church, who are all writing in different attitudes. The whole work is so finely executed and so delicate, that one clearly perceives how much Luca had profited by being a goldsmith.”
Leopoldo del Miglidre, in 1684, says that Cocchi, praising these bronze doors, wrote :
“Splendida quæ Lucas auri percussor et aeris, Hostia componit Robius arte pari.”
Follini attributes the same words to Fra Domenico di Corella. It is said that many of the heads, which are considered the best part of the work, are portraits of Luca’s contemporaries ; the arrangement, however, is so monotonous that it must have been imposed on him, though he himself must have been pleased with many details of his work, for they are often repeated in his later works. The compartment representing the Madonna, especially, he often reproduced. The attitude of the Virgin sitting on a bench, and the folds of the mantle, are the same in many of Luca’s Madonnas. The Infant Jesus holds in his hand the scroll with the favourite words of Luca: “Ego Sum Lux- Mundi.” It is suggested that the Madonna’s garments and also the hair were decorated with gold. ” These exquisite reliefs are perfect models of plastic art, and the broad, simple folds are worthy of a Greek sculptor of the best period of Hellenic art.” Cicognora considered these bronze doors a simple and beautiful work, and held that no artist could have done anything more exquisite. A terra-cotta at Berlin and another at the South Kensington Museum are probably original studies by Luca for the panels of the Doctors. These bronze doors cost 1300 florins700 for the sculpture, 400 for the casting, and 200 for the chiselling and mounting.
In 1448 Luca wrought two statues for the sacristy, representing angels bearing chandeliers. They are still in the old sacristy of the Cathedral, and are the only authenticated statues in full relief attributed to Luca.
In 1446 Luca della Robbia received the order to decorate the ceiling of the marble chapel that Piero de’ Medici had commissioned Michelozzo to build at San Miniato al Monte. “This chapel,” says Vasari, ” is raised on four columns in the centre of the church. The ceiling was divided into eight compartments, producing a very beautiful effect.” On the frieze are represented the arms of the Medici, which consist of three feathers in a diamond with the motto ” Semper.” The art with which Luca della Robbia disposed the feathers and other accessories shows his marvellous talent for decoration. This ceiling of S. Miniato is his first example of purely decorative sculpture, and we must note it carefully, for it is not till some time after that Luca introduces ornaments of fruit and flowers in glazed enamel terra-cotta. The white mouldings of the decoration of the Chapel of the Crucifixion have a most charming effect.
It was precisely at this period that Luca, not being able to execute alone all the commissions he received from every part of Italy and Europe, took as his helpers the two Duccio brothers, Ottaviano and Agostino, so often mistaken as members of the Robbia family, and later on he also took into partnership his nephew, Andrea, and Andrea’s son, Giovanni. It is known that after this period Luca undertook few works without their co-operation.
There is in the Church of S. Miniato al Monte another rare and beautiful work : the figure of Christ crucified. The “Cicerone” mentions it, but travellers and art critics seem to have overlooked it. In M. Marcel Reymond’s book, “Les della Robbia,” we find an illustration of this Christ. The same author notices that it is almost the only nude figure executed by Luca, and compares it in beauty with the Christ of Donatello and the Christ of Brunelleschi in S. M. Novella. Though it is very badly repaired in the broken parts, on the whole it is a splendid master-piece, and perfectly modelled. The date is probably 1448, but there is no documentary evidence to substantiate this.
Art critics have lately brought to notice the Madonna of the Hospital degli Innocenti, which M. Marcel Reymond not only considers as a genuine work of Luca’s, but also believes to be one of his first Madonnas. We cannot fail to see in it some similarity to the Virgin of the Cathedral and other Virgins of Luca della Robbia. Mr. Bode expresses on this work the same opinion as M. Marcel Reymond. Professor Allan Marquand thinks it probable that this Madonna was made for the Hospital of S. Maria degli Innocenti, shortly after its completion in February 1445.
This bas-relief represents the Holy Virgin bearing the Infant Saviour on her left arm. The Holy Child holds a scroll with the following words : ” Ego Sum Lux Mundi.” The Madonna’s right hand points to the base, on which is the inscription, ” Quia respexit Dominus humilitatem Ancille sue.” Professor Allan Marquand describes the eyes marked in lilac, hairy brows, lilac upper lashes, pupils, and a light shade of lilac in place of the usual grey-blue for the irises.
In a private collection in Paris there is a Madonna very similar to this one of the Innocenti Hospital, which has also been ascribed to Luca.
It is mentioned by old art historians that Luca della Robbia wrought a small figure to be placed over the door of the ” Cancelleria dei Priori,” in Florence, but, like so many other works of the master, it has been removed or broken.
As soon as the fame of Luca della Robbia’s glazed enamelled terra-cottas had spread throughout Tuscany, other provinces in Italy wished to possess monuments made by his hand, and the province of Urbino was the first to come forward, the friars of S. Domenico giving him the commission to execute a lunette over the principal door of their church.
Printed records state that Michelozzo, who had often asked Luca della Robbia’s collaboration, wished him to contribute to the decoration of the door he was building for the Church of S. Domenico in Urbino.
This glazed enamelled terra-cotta represents the Holy Virgin with the Infant Saviour modelled with exquisite grace. He is standing in His mother’s arms holding the inscription : ” Ego Sum Lvx Mundi.” By their sides are S. Peter and S. Dominic (on the left). On the right, S. Thomas, a splendid type of a monk with spectacles, and the holy Albert, a Dominican friar, master of S. Thomas this latter is holding a book, in which we can read the passage : “De fructu operum tuorum satiabitur terra.”
This lunette measures 12 ft. 3 in. in diameter. It is a shameful vandalism that this masterpiece was allowed to be damaged by the balls of the ” Giuocco del Pallone” that used to be played close by in the Ducal Square. It has also been much injured by damp spots and has been very badly restored, pieces of stucco being placed in the parts of the missing enamel.
We owe to the late Professor Milanesi the discovery of the interesting documents relating to this bas-relief, which was finished in 1451-1452. In June 1451 Luca received partial payment for it. In the documents there is mentioned an oval, of which at present there is no trace. Among art historians, Professor Fabricszy only accepts the tympanum over the upper part of the door, representing God the Father with two angels, as Luca’s work.
Though executed at different periods, I have thought best to place together the monuments of Luca della Robbia at Impruneta. It is difficult to give a precise date to these tabernacles, but we have reason to suppose that they were executed between the years 1460-1470.
It was Cavaliere Guido Carocci who attracted the attention of tourists to these monuments at Impruneta, for he was the first to mention them in his book, “I Dintorni di Firenze,” published in 1881. The village of Impruneta is at a short distance from Florence, and a very popular fair has been held there for generations. The church is celebrated for possessing the largest relic of the Holy Cross, given by Filippo degli Scolari, known generally by the name of Pippo Spano.
We are led to believe that Michelozzo and Luca della Robbia worked together at this tabernacle of the Holy Cross known as the Cappella del Santissimo.
On each side of the predella are the figures of S. John the Baptist and S. Augustine. The former is particularly noteworthy, on account of the drapery and carefully modelled limbs. It has been considered one of the most beautiful figures of S. John in painting or sculpture of the Renaissance. The most interesting part of this tabernacle are the eight adoring angels represented on the predella. These angels resemble most strikingly all the angels of Luca della Robbia’s works. The two on the left side carry a scroll, on which are inscribed the words :
Probet autem seipsum Et sic de Pane illo eclat.
The angel to the right bears the scroll with the words :
Hic est panis vivus Qui de celo descendit.
This work of Luca della Robbia shows his genius at its zenith, and in many points surpasses all his other productions. It is indeed surprising that, though in a village, but not far from Florence, it could have escaped until recently the notice of travellers and art students.
The architectural framework of this altar is most lovely. The border of pine-cones reminds us of the beautiful enamel round the Bishop Federighi’s tomb, and in few of Luca’s works are the pilasters decorated with more exquisite taste. Formerly Impruneta was known as S. M. in Pineta, for the church was in the middle of a fir forest, which must have inspired Luca for the decoration of this frieze.
The ceiling of the Church of the Holy Cross consists of twelve square panels of glazed terra-cotta. These panels are formed of yellow rosettes in blue circular shells with projecting pine-cones. These ornaments are very similar to those in the Pazzi Chapel. Opposite the altar of the Holy Cross we find at Impruneta the altar of the Madonna, with the standing figures of S. Luke and S. Paul. The tabernacle contains a miraculous image of the Holy Virgin, much venerated in Florence, and carried in procession on solemn occasions. On this image runs the legend, so common in Italy on holy images and relics, that when stolen or lost, they were miraculously found by oxen ploughing in the fields. The dignity of expression of the figures of S. Luke and S. Paul, the modelling of the garments, the manner in which they are draped, the treatment of the hands and hair, all reveal Luca’s handiwork. The frieze and ceiling of the altar have marked interest, on account of the two reliefs representing the half figure of the Virgin with the Infant Saviour holding a quince. These figures have a striking resemblance to the “Madonna” in the Bargello, attributed to Luca by the late Director of the Museum, Signor Umberto Rossi. In the attitude of the Infant Jesus, clinging lovingly to His Mother, is revealed Luca’s tender love for children and his careful study of infancy with all its graceful helplessness. These two reliefs are inserted in a fruit frieze which, in its symmetrical arrangement of bouquets, reminds us of Luca’s usual frames of fruit and flowers. M. Marcel Reymond suggests the date of 1440 to 1450 for the execution of the statues of the Altar of the Madonna, and 1460 to 1470 for the execution of the Madonnas and garland, while Professor Allan Marquand says from 1450 to 1460.
The “Crucifixion” at Impruneta differs essentially from all the other works of Luca della Robbia. It represents Christ on the Cross, and on each side are the entire figures of the Madonna and S. John ; they are white on a blue ground. White, blue, and yellow are found in the irises of the eyes, eyelashes, and eyebrows. The cross is the colour of wood. Above the figure of Christ is figured the pelican’s nest, for which green has been used. At the head of the Cross is found the usual inscription I.N.R.I. In this work there is nothing of the calm expression that Luca usually gives to the features of his Christs and Madonnas. Each face bears the revelation of agony and despair, even the angels hovering in the air seem to be wringing their hands in anguish. All the piety in Luca della Robbia’s nature is stamped on this work, which is one of his most perfect compositions.
These monuments, only mentioned by Cavaliere Carocci, have been all closely studied by Professor Allan Marquand, in his article in the American Journal of Archaeology (1893), under the title ” Some Unpublished Monuments by Luca della Robbia,” and by M. Marcel Reymond in his book ” Les delta Robbia.”
The Pazzi Chapel in Florence is ornamented with two series of medallions representing the four Evangelists and the twelve Apostles in half relief.
No work of Luca della Robbia has been the subject of more animated and endless discussions than these Apostles and Evangelists of the Pazzi Chapel. Some critics consider them as a work of his maturity, while others are inclined to place them amongst the last productions of the master. As we have no documents to prove their precise date, we must be guided by comparisons with other works of Luca to give an approximate one. There can be no doubt that these decorations are a genuine work of his; but some authors have suggested that the designs must have been given by Filippo Brunelleschi, who built the Chapel of Santa Croce. According to Vasari, Luca was commissioned to execute the figures in glazed terra-cotta both inside and outside the chapel. Luca having a special aversion for complicated scenesexcept in the Singing Gallery, an experiment which he never repeatedput, as usual, few figures in this work, giving to each the highest finish in every detail. The reliefs of the Evangelists are similar to each other, but at the same time there is no monotony in their execution. Special notice must be given to the bearing of the angel near S. Matthew, with its long tight sleeves. We must not overlook the eagle at the side of S. John, and the pose of S. Luke’s foot is most original. Some critics find much of Donatello in this work, while others trace the collaboration of his nephew Andrea. In few works did Luca employ more colours than in these bas-reliefs. He has made profuse use of brown for the vestments of the Evangelists and for their hair. For these reasons many critics are disposed to place this work among the last works of the artist.
We find ourselves confronted by the usual difficulty in trying to fix a precise date for the bas-relief of the “Madonna dell’ Agnolo,’ which represents the Holy Virgin with the Infant Saviour holding a scroll, with the inscription so often employed in similar works : ” Ego Sum Lux Mundi. On each side of the holy group are two angels bearing vases with lilies. The garland of flowers which frames this lunette is wrought with exquisite taste.
It is surprising to find such a lovely masterpiece over the door of a miserable house in a by-street of Florence.
In olden times it was probably an oratory or the chapel of some congregation.
Some critics have put the date of this work in the year 1431, founding it on the fact that the arms of Pope Martin are quite close by ; but Umberto Rossi, the late Director of the National Museum, positively denies that the arms of Pope Martin V. can have anything to do with the bas-relief. In the fifteenth and following centuries, churches, confraternities, hospitals, and noble families used to put their coats of arms on the buildings of their property, and even at the present date there is hardly a street in Florence in which there is not a monogram of the congregation of the Misericordia, of Or San Michele, etc. We constantly find the cherub’s head, which represents the arms of the Chapter of the Cathedral, the grating of S. Lawrence, and the crutches of the Hospital of S. M. Nuova. According to M. Marcel Reymond, there is too great a difference between the bas-relief of the Via dell’ Agnolo and the first works of Luca to place it before 1452. Vasari mentions and praises this work.
The decoration of the ceiling of Cardinal di Portogallo’s Chapel at S. Miniato al Monte may be placed between 1455-1461. This Cardinal di Porto-gallo was nephew to King Alfonso of Portugal, and Legate of the Pope. While passing through Florence he died, and to his death in that city we owe one of the most splendid tombs of the world. This Prince Jacopo was celebrated for his virtues and for his great beauty. In 1460 his friend the Bishop Alviano, perhaps ordered by his court, wished to erect to the young prelate’s memory this superb monument. Manetti, the architect of the Medici, the Pollajuolo brothers, Antonio and Piero Rossellino all contributed to make it an unrivalled work of art. Expense was not spared, and 1600 livres were paid for the lovely pavement, and 425 florins was the price given for the tomb. The ceiling of the chapel was given to Luca della Robbia to execute. We will put the description of it in Vasari’s words : “This ceiling has no sharp angles, but within four circular compartments the master represented the four Evangelists, and in the midst of the ceiling, also within a medallion, they depicted the Holy Ghost, filling all the remaining spaces with scales, which, following the lines of the ceiling, diminished gradually as they approached the centre, the whole executed with so much care and diligence, that nothing better in that manner could possibly be imagined.” It appears that Vasari was misled by Don Miniato Pitti, and under his influence he stated that the four figures represented Evangelists, whilst, without doubt, Luca intended them to represent the theological virtues. One figure holds a cup in one hand and a jug in the other ; a second figure is holding a shield ; the third a sword and a globe ; and the fourth is grasping a serpent. This ceiling is one of Luca’s most original works. He rarely reached such height of perfection as in these figures, and few chapels of the Florentine Renaissance can show a decoration more beautiful and more simple.
Many great masters, and among them Raphael, must have made a careful study of these bas-reliefs and been inspired by their beauty. On close examination and comparison, we find points of analogy between some of the works of Raphael in the Vatican and this masterpiece of Luca’s. In the execution of this ceiling historians mention the contribution of Luca’s nephew Andrea and the Duccio brothers.
The sepulchral monument of Bishop Federighi, was first placed in the Church of S. Pancrazio. When in 1810 this church was closed, this marvellous work was taken to the Church of S. Francesco di Paolo, on the hill of Bellosguardo, out of Porta Romana. In 1887 it was removed to the Church of Santa Trinità in the Via Tornabuoni. The tomb is of marble, in which is placed the recumbent figure of the Bishop, taken from life. In a recess are the three half-length figures representing Jesus, the Madonna, and S. John. “Between the columns which adorn this work are depicted garlands with clusters of fruit and foliage, so life – like and natural,” writes Vasari, “that the pencil could pro-duce nothing better in oil painting. This work is, of a truth, most rare and wonderful ; the lights and shades have been managed so admirably that one can scarcely imagine it possible to produce such effect in work that has been completed by the action of fire.”
Two flying angels bearing a garland with the inscription of the Bishop, setting forth the name and titles of the deceased, are sculptured below the rich cornice of the sarcophagus. The glazed tiles about this marble tomb were set in place many years after Luca had made his first works in glazed enamel terra-cotta. They are of great beauty, far surpassing any other work of the same kind. “The perfect mean between truth and nature,” wrote Vasari, “has never been more thoroughly attained than in these wonderful tile pictures, each of which is worthy of the most careful study. The ground of each tile is formed of several pieces fitted together like a kind of mosaic, probably because the pigment of the ground required a different baking from that needed for the enamel painting of the centre. The few other works that exist of this class do not approach the beauty of this early essay in majolica painting, in which Luca evidently put forth his utmost skill and patience. The statue of the Bishop is so perfect that it is a pity Luca did not leave more works in marble. His plastic genius should have oftener turned towards these ornaments, and in the few examples left by him, he can aspire to be the rival of Donatello.”
The traces of gold that covered part of the accessories have disappeared. This monument is now in perfect light, and none of its beauties are hidden, as often happens, by the darkness which reigns in the Italian churches.
Luca della Robbia received the commission for this monument in 1454. Much dispute arose about the price, and it was paid to him only after Andrea Cavalcanti had been ordered to value it.
Vasari mentions the ” Madonna” of S. Pier di Buon Consiglio (1450-1460), which was placed over the door of the Church of S. Pier di Buon Consiglio in the old market-place of Florence. It now goes under the name of” Madonna di San Pierino.” It represents the Madonna, in half relief, pressing the Infant Jesus to her breast. There is something of Raphael in the bearing of this Virgin. The two angels that figure by her side are very similar to those of the monument of Federighi. According to competent judges, this bas-relief of S. Pier di Buon Consiglio is one of Luca’s best works.
Allan Marquand draws our attention to the eyes of the Madonna, ” which are dark blue, in a sketchy manner, the eyebrows and lashes, and the irises with bluish-grey.” His ideal of the Madonna was evidently a woman with blue eyes. Luca gives hazel eyes to the Christ ; but from beginning to end his Madonna’s eyes are blue.
The garland of flowers round the relief is exquisitely lovely. Ruskin writes on this beautiful masterpiece : ” Never pass the market of Florence without looking at Luca della Robbia’s Madonna in the circle above the church, and glance from the vegetables underneath to Luca’s leaves and lilies, to see how honestly he was trying to make his clay like the garden stuff.”
When this lunette was placed over the door of the church, the Florentine public of that period declared it was a “senseless” thing to put the image of the Virgin there, where the effigy of the patron saint was more appropriate. When the Church of S. Pier Buon Consiglio was demolished to make room for the buildings of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, this bas-relief was transferred to the National Museum.
On the exterior of the Church of Or San Michele, are four bas-reliefsthe Medallions of the Guild of Physicians and Druggists, the Silk Merchants, the Council of Merchants, and the Council of Architects and Masons. Franceschini, the author of “L’Oratorio di San Michele in Orto in Firenze,” writes, that ” besides physicians and druggists, this guild included painters, workers in wax, perfumers, varnishers, dealers in crockery, hats, stationery, glass, needles and thread, ropes, and books, and barbers. The Virgin was their patron, and their arms consist of the Madonna in a tabernacle, painted in the usual coloursa blue shield with lilies on each side. Dante belonged to this guild.” Vasari mentions the ” Madonna ” of Or San Michele, Florence (the medallion of the Physicians and Druggists), and clearly attributes it to Luca, but he mentions no date, and numerous discussions have arisen on the subject. M. Marcel Reymond assumes that it was executed from 1455 to 1460, while Professor Allan Marquand thinks that it does not much differ in date from the medallion of the Council of Merchants, 1463. The figures are highly coloured, and the treatment of the Madonna and Child is most characteristic of Luca’s special manner. This “Madonna” of Or San Michele is most similar to the ” Madonna of the Roses ” in the Bargello, and has clear analogy with the ” Madonna ” of the sacristy doors of the Cathedral in Florence. The undulation of the drapery is exquisite, and the head of the Virgin, without a veil, adds charm to the figure. No critic has studied this interesting work so closely as Professor Allan Marquand, and his observations are so valuable a guide to us, that he must grant us the permission to present them to our readers in his own words. “If we study the Madonnas of Luca della Robbia apart from those of Andrea and Giovanni, we shall find that Luca ordinarily places the Child to the right of the Virgin, whereas both Andrea and Giovanni, with equal regularity, place the Child to the left. The exceptions to this rule are surprisingly few.
Again, the drapery of the Virgin resembles the drapery )f the Virgin on the sacristy doors of the Cathedral at Florence ; the throne is the same simple bench which appears in all the panels of the doors ; the treatment of the hair is similar to that of the Virtues in the Portogallo Chapel at S. Miniato, and the design of the background recalls the border of the curtain figured upon the Tabernacle at Peretola. If we examine Luca’s medallions upon the campanile of the Cathedral of Florence, we shall find at least one peculiarity which distinguishes them from the rest. He had considered that the medallions were to be placed above the level of the eye of the spectator, and consequently made the basis upon which the figures are placed slope down towards the spectator. We see the same peculiarity in his “Resurrection” relief, in his ” Liberation and Crucifixion of S. Peter,” and we see it here. When we examine more carefully the character of the colouring, we find here also reasons for attributing this monument to Luca. There is a quality in the light-green lining of the cloak, and its harmony with the blue, also in the greenish-blue of the throne, which evinces the same refined colour-sense that we see exhibited in the treatment of the medallions already described. We may also observe that the manner in which the eyes are coloured is characteristic of Luca. He indicates the hairs of the eyebrows and lashes by distinct strokes of blue, and distinguishes a dark pupil from the lighter iris somewhat roughly, not with the painstaking exactness of the miniature painter.”
With great originality Luca adorned the door, representing the arms of the Guild of the Silk Merchants, with two genii supporting it. There is no documentary evidence to prove the authorship of this work, but only Vasari’s statement. Andrea della Robbia’s name has sometimes been mentioned, on account of the nude figures of the genii, in which a few critics trace a resemblance with the bambini of the Innocenti Hospital ; others, instead, find an analogy with some of the figures of the ” Cantoria,” and attribute, without hesitation, this medallion to Luca. We venture to suppose that some pieces and sections were the work of Andrea, but that the whole was accomplished under the guidance and influence of Luca.
The garland of fruit is composed of grapes, apples, pine-cones, and oranges. These bouquets are arranged with the greatest symmetry, repeating twice each group of fruit. ” Luca,” says Ruskin, ” loved the various forms of fruit, and wrought them into all sorts of marvellous frames and garlands, giving them their natural colours, only subdued, a little paler than nature.”
We find in Vasari’s life of Luca: “The master thought to make further inventions, and laboured to discover a method by which figures and historical representations might be coloured on level surfaces of terra-cotta, proposing thereby to secure a more life-like effect to the pictures. Of this he made an experiment in a medallion which is above the tabernacle of the four saints near Or San Michele, on the plane of which our artist figured the insignia and instruments of the Guild of Manufactures.” It represents the Florentine fleur-de-lis resting on a corded bale, which is coloured in violet against a white shield, on a dark blue ground surrounded by a wreath of flowers and fruit. We find in this work all of Luca’s characteristics, especially in the colours, strikingly harmonious in their shades. Nothing can be more true to nature than this wreath of flowers, fruit, and vegetables, which is composed of grapes, lemons, oranges, figs, plums, pears, olives, chestnuts, quinces, artichokes, pine-cones, and wild roses. No greater variety can be expected, and it is owing to this variety that none of the wreaths of fruit and flowers of Luca are monotonous ; and he was never equalled by his nephews or his scholars. The date of this was probably 1463. In the list of documents will be found one recently brought to light by the assiduous researches of Cavaliere Jodoco del Badia.
On the northern side of Or San Michele, we find a circular medallion, executed 1470 to 1480, for the Council of Architects and Masons, which, without doubt, may be attributed to Luca. This medallion is composed of small pieces which are so beautifully joined together that it seems a picture. The scales of colour are combined with infinite skill and harmony. On account of its elevated position, it is necessary to . look at it through opera-glasses to appreciate its marvellous beauty. In four small circles are represented the compasses, the square, the trowel, the hammer and the chisels, which make part of the arms of the masons and architects.
The designs of the background are in a light green against a darker shade of the same colour. In the centre circle there is a large axe with a blade in white. The handle is yellow, and round it a floral design of light violet against a darker shade of the same colour. In the circular spaces we find three beautiful shades of blue, and in the outer circles large blue flowers, the ground for which is a yellowish brown. The whole work is so perfect that some critics consider it one of Luca’s last productions, but it is probable that he executed others before his death.
The Quaratesi Palace belonged formerly to the Pazzi family, who must have commissioned Luca della Robbia to execute their arms, which are composed of two dolphins and four daggers. The garland that surrounds them is somewhat larger than that of Or San Michele, and is composed of fewer groups, which enable us to study minutely the wonderful details of this surprising work.
The Serristori arms in the Quaratesi Palace, Florence (1460 to 1470), are in a better state of preservation than the Pazzi arms. The groups of fruit and flowers are disposed with great elegance. The fir-cones are especially noteworthy. This bas-relief has now (1900) been removed to the Serristori Palace in Florence.
In the ceiling of the portico of the Pazzi Chapel at Santa Croce, we find the arms of the Pazzi family. They are in glazed enamel, and form the central part of the ceiling ; they are surrounded by a garland of fruit, which in its turn has a row of smaller roses, and in another circle are larger roses. Blue is the colour that predominates ; the roses are yellow, intermixed with violet and green foliage. This work must have been executed late in Luca’s life (1470-1480), for every detail of it, on examination, shows the evolution of his talent.
In the Museum of the Duomo there is a lunette representing God the Father between two angels. He is blessing with one hand, while the other is resting on a book in which the letters are to be read. This lunette must be the special kind of work which Vasari mentions in his life of Luca della Robbia, and to which we have already alluded. ” A short time before his death he had begun to paint figures and historical representations on a level surface, etc… . One of these pictures may be seen in a room of the building belonging to the superintendents of the Duomo. It is over a door on the left entrance, and is a lunette composed of three portions, representing the Eternal Father in the centre, with an angel on each side, in the attitude of most devout and profound adoration.” This work is enwreathed with a garland of fruit and foliage.
Lazzari, Cavallucci and Molinier, and M. Marcel Reymond do not hesitate to attribute the decoration of the Chapel of S. Job at Venice to Luca della Robbia, and the last named describes it as follows :” This Chapel is the second on the left-hand side ; it contains four medallions, in which are represented the four Evangelists, each holding an open bookall four are depicted with their different symbols. The figure of God the Father is in the middle of the ceiling, surrounded by angels ; the other parts are decorated with tiles coloured in yellow, green, and black. The medallions are enwreathed with garlands of fruit and foliage of different colours. The figures are white on a blue ground.” This work has so much similarity with the Virtues of the S. Miniato Chapel and the Evangelists of the Pazzi Chapel that we need not enter into further particulars with regard to it.