THE position of Luca della Robbia in Italian Art is one of great eminence, but it is not easy to compare his works with those of his immediate contemporaries, as he occupies a position quite removed from them. It is one which he himself created, and which he alone could fill. Grouping together the various members of the Robbia family, we obtain a school of craftsmen, yet with whom is this school to be compared, as within a few short years it came into existence, flourished, and perished, never to be seen again ?
Upon the early work of Luca can, indeed, be seen the influence of that marvellous revival of sculpture which attained to its zenith in the work of Donatello and Ghiberti ; but, later on, when he invented his new art, that of enamelled sculpture, he broke away from old traditions, and struck out a new and original line for himself. It is well, in trying to judge of the special merits and characteristics of Luca’s work, to compare his great Cantoria” with the companion work by Donatello. In the latter we have, as Hope Rea has so well said, ” forms which are neither angel nor child, but an almost entirely abstract playing with Form and Life.” In Donatello’s work there is the pagan spirit, the influence to the full of the humanist move ment, the exuberance of motion and life, certainly, but coupled with a half madness, an hysteria, an excitement which is of the supernatural, and almost belongs to a lower order of creation rather than to either child or angel.
In Luca’s work all this is absent ; the spirit which permeates the work is wholly different, and almost entirely Christian. It is more than that ; it is true with a marvellous truth, realistic in the deepest sense, but taken only from the tenderer side of human nature, and not from the dramatic and passionate side.
The humanistic movement, however, which was at its zenith, did not pass Luca without leaving upon him an impression, and to it we owe the grace of the draperies that enfold the Madonna and Child forms, the presence of the toga upon the children in the ” Cantoria,” the use of classical ornaments, arches, pilasters, and the like. The spirit of the movement, however, the returning to classical models, and the drinking in of the lore of classical stories and representing them in art, or the presentation of religious scenes and events garbed in classical dress, and presented with the pagan ideas and literary culture, had no effect upon Luca, whose mind was that of an innocent child absorbed in the contemplation of the beauty of life; and therefore giving but scanty attention to its passion, its drama, or its cruelty.
There was ever a purity about his works, that the intense glowing whiteness of his enamel will typify, and which the blue of the heavens which he brought down to earth will represent.
He was a lover of life, and an eager scholar of the actions of children, of their movements, their habits, and their joys. Only by deep study could he have presented us with such accurate representations of all that is most lovely in child life. His “Cantoria” children live and move, the very action of their throats can be seen as they sing, the soul of music is in their faces. There is a swing in their movements, a grace of attitude, and an elegance of flowing drapery, that in the works of the Renaissance cannot be surpassed. In the expression of maternal love, tender sympathy, and reverent adoration, he is again successful, and is able to impart to the faces of his Madonnas that contemplative, dreamy beauty that is so lovely to behold, and which can yet so often be seen in the faces of the Italian women.
Luca must have been a man who loved deeply. We hear of no feminine influence crossing his life, but we trace in his works a knowledge of the expression of affection that could only have been realised by a tender love which was, perhaps, the devotion of a man to his mother, or the result of a warmly affectionate and deeply religious nature.
There is no doubt that his first idea with regard to his enamelled terra-cotta was to give an appearance of polished marble to the clay that he so skilfully modelled. He had also found, doubtless, that he could manipulate the clay with far greater rapidity than he could work in marble or stone, and at far less cost to himself of labour and fatigue; and when, further, he found that in this enamel method he had a means by which some of the less important parts of his labour could be performed by others, he was the more eager to develop the process that he had started. It must not be imagined that he actually invented the process; he but improved it and brought it up to the measure of perfection which it reached in his bottega. But this statement need not detract in any way from his merit, as to him belongs sufficient glory in other ways. To Luca must be accredited without any doubt the discovery of the method of applying this enamel to great surfaces of massive terra-cotta sculptures. The difficulties must have been immense, and even now we do not know in what way many of them were overcome. As one writer has pointed out, the difficulties of ” unequal contraction and expansion, the twisting, warping, and breaking of the ware, the unusual sizes of the masses of terra-cotta, the rendering coherent of the glazes when fired, their exemption from cracks, bubbles, unsightly patches, and a host of other accidents,” all these must have taxed to the utmost the anxieties of the worker. All, however, were overcome with a rare skill, and the result, we know, was well-nigh perfect. No wonder that the process was hailed with delight, and that it was welcomed, in those wonderful days when the desire to make everything beautiful filled the hearts of the people, as an excellent method by which an added beauty could be given to houses, palaces, churches, and streets.
Small wonder, also, that the Church, ever ready to take hold on all new methods of teaching her people the truths that concerned their eternal destiny, and finding in Luca a devout man full of religious feeling, and able to implant this religion, with its necessary adjunct of the love of beauty, into his productions, claimed him as her helper, and employed him far and wide to decorate both the exteriors and interiors of her churches.
There was no loss of opportunity in his discovery. The times were ready, as they always are, for the man. The need was present for the work, the desire existed for the decoration, and the man was there to do the work. We can at this day hardly realise how great was that movement which we term the Renaissance, or how far-reaching its results ; but in the use of Luca’s work to beautify the houses of Florence we see one side of its activities, that of rendering lovely even the most ordinary of the very streets along which the people went. Luca’s enamelled work was permanent, indestructible, clean, and unaffected by weather or storm, and all these qualities made it the perfect thing for its purpose that it was.
Again, there was at that time a growing affection for the things of nature, and in Luca’s mind there was already a love for flowers and fruit, for foliage and for branches, and a realisation of the decorative value of the architecture of nature. He took the movement at its rebound, and was a realist at the best. He painted the things of nature well, because he loved them well, and because in his simple innocence he knew that, for perfect decoration, the artist must turn to nature, and find in the flowers of the field his tutors and his lessons.
Therefore, above the markets and above the churches he set forth his emblems of the love of God, and girded them about with the visible signs of that affection that we have on all sides, framing his teaching of religion’s deepest lessons with a rich frame of the fruits and flowers with which God had decorated the world for our use and delight.
We may, as Sir Charles Robinson has done, divide the works of Luca into two broad divisions. In the first class we may put those that were works of the highest art, and of which no repetitions exist, and which were often distinguished by the armorial bearings of the family who had commissioned them.
In the second we may group the more regular productions of what became in later years a commercial undertaking, and include in that group the minor altar-pieces, circular medallions, badges, arms, inscriptions, and objects of personal or public devotion of small size.
Many of these last were, no doubt, originally designed by Luca, and copied by those who worked with him, or after his death ; but the first group comprises works which have the personal element strongly marked, and which are, in fact, personal works of art from the hand of a master.
In all these Luca stands alone, and those who came after him have been content to copy him, and to learn at his feet ; and for that reason, in considering his place in Italian art, we have to recognise him as a man apart, one who stands in a strongly individual position. He originated works of the greatest beauty which sprang from a highly cultured activity, a knowledge of technique unrivalled in his own sphere of operation, and a desire to put his whole heart into his labour.
His ability to present sorrow can well be studied n the ” Tomb of Federighi,” the joy of life can be seen in the “Madonna” in Berlin, the sadness of approaching grief in the Viviani ” Madonna,” and a nearer approach of that grief at Impruneta. The innocence of childhood can be studied on the Innocenti Hospital, the tenderness of mother for child, and the love of child for mother, in the Bargello, deep thought and earnest study in the Pazzi Chapel, angelic sympathy at Santa Croce, the teaching of the apostles at Impruneta, justice and temperance in Paris, patience in the Duomo, and science outside on the Campanile. Above all, the great central lessons of the story of redemption can be found, wrought with infinite skill, all over the city of Florence, and depicted with fervour, truth, and reality whilst, within the churches, his finest skill and greatest affection are bestowed upon those tabernacles where rests the central mystery of religion, and around which the greatest ceremonies of faith take place.
It is always sad when the death of a great artist is the signal for the degeneration of his designs into base commercial products ; and we may be thankful that Luca left such wise successors, that the output of really great works of art did not cease for some time, even though they never attained to the high level, in either beauty or excellence, of the works of Luca. The world has much for which to thank Andrea and Giovanni, and even their successors, and may be grateful to them for many works of rare beauty and rich colour. But, in time, the inevitable decay took place, and the production of works that were really high in artistic merit ceased. The bottega degenerated into a mere manufactory, and then ceased altogether, to be revived in our own day for the mere copying of other people’s ideas, and without any original force at all.
Luca’s work does not well bear removal. It is peculiarly suited to the places for which it was made, and under the brilliant sky of Italy is at home. Its tender pathos, which, as Pater states, is intensified by ” the low relief of its sculpture,” its freedom from deep shadow, and its vivid, cool colouring, are all forms of expression suitable to its environment, and will not bear transplanting. In Italy it is in its right place, but remove it thence and much of its charm fades.
The work of Luca was in the best of all senses unique. It was the result of the times in which he lived. It was learned by a close study of nature under her varying aspects, by a close listening to her voice when she spoke in’ such low and tender tones that only those who loved her could hear her words. It was the result of a mind kept pure and clear, of one who was. fresh and full of original genius, and ever on the lookout for a new development of the teaching of nature, or a fresh view of beauty. It was accompanied with a profound knowledge of the deeper instincts of womanhood, and a reverent and tender affection for maternity. It was the result of an intense love of childhood, and an appreciation that is given to but few for their joys and delights. It was schooled with some trouble, some anxiety, and some disappointments, and had passed, as it were, through its own furnaces. It had emerged bright, glistening, and pure, and, with a lurking fund of light humour, was able to make its way cheerfully through life, to brighten others, and to leave the world the better for its existence. Happy Luca, to have had such a genius, and happier still to have made such a use of it that those who lived with him and near him loved him with so deep a devotion, and that those of us who love his work may, at this long interval, after he has passed away, rejoice in what he did to render the world more lovely, and to leave upon it the imprint of a pure, humble, and affectionate nature.