LUCA DELLA ROBBIA, younger by some years than either Ghiberti or Donatello, learned from both of them, and in a certain measure succeeded in reconciling their divergent styles. From Ghiberti he took some-thing of his harmony of line and beauty of form, like him he loved to depict the figures of youth, like him he preferred to express the tenderer sentiments; and in general bent of mind he resembled Ghiberti rather than Donatello. He was less ardent, less violent, less audacious than the latter, nor did he question nature with the same wish to be faithful to her even in her irregularities. He was not so inventive, and did not explore so many different paths; and yet if we consider the merely exterior forms of his art it would seem that he was, on the whole, more under the influence of Donatello than of Ghiberti, for it was from Donatello that he borrowed his general style of treating the bas-relief and the management of its different planes. But if Luca della Robbia was inspired by the work of Ghiberti and Donatello he should by no means be considered as an imitator, for he evolved a type of art different from theirs, and quite personal to himself; and it is because of his evolution of this type, and because he was one of the last great innovators of the fifteenth century, that he deserves to be ranked with the greatest geniuses of Italian art.
It is true that he limited the already constrained scope of the bas-relief, for he not only abandoned historical compositions, but discarded all complicated scenes, and all representations of architecture and landscape, to present only one or two figures instead. Indeed, in his hands the scope of bas-relief art underwent a real diminution. It gained, however, compensating advantages. His more restrained form allowed special importance to be given to the outline of the human body. In the more complex reliefs the individual silhouette loses its importance, and the careful drawing of each figure be-comes superfluous. In Luca’s work, however, the individual form predominates, and impresses itself upon the eye as does a statue. Moreover, by the same simplification, Luca attained a second advantage, that of concentrating the observer’s attention upon the face. Perhaps it was mainly for this reason that he limited the number of personages in a group and often showed them only to the waist.
By his attempt to gain greater individual expressiveness he seems rather to be ranked with Donatello than with Ghiberti; but where Donatello would have sought for emotion, violence, and effectiveness Luca seeks only for the smiling and the tender, and seems never to have dreamed of sacrificing physical beauty to the revelation of thought. Indeed, one might say that no other artist ever so strictly limited himself to the depiction of beautiful ideas in beautiful human forms. The human beings which he chose to body forth his ideas were those most sensible of beauty and purity,the woman and the child. The woman, upon whom Donatello scarcely looked, and whom Ghiberti apparently only studied for a certain cold charm of outline, Luca presents with all her seductive grace of form, smile, and look. The child, which Donatello only considered as a moving vivacious and agitated little animal, was to Luca the ideal flower of human creation, and he seems to have known how to love children as only mothers know how to love them.
Compared to his predecessors, who solved so many great problems and sought to express innumerable, thronging ideas, one might consider that Luca worked in a limited and lesser field. True as this may be, it is no less true that in all the domain of art there are no figures which haunt our memories more persistently than the Virgins and children of Luca della Robbia, and none which inspire us with deeper sympathy. There have been greater masters than he; there have been none whose works we love more. . . .
Andrea della Robbia was born thirty-five years later than Luca. In the fifteenth centurythat active period when minds were in constant ebullition and incessantly creatingthis short lapse of time was sufficient to produce profound modifications in the arts. Although Andrea was educated by Luca, the differences between them in thought and grasp were so marked that no real doubt can exist as to the differences of their styles. Andrea did no work comparable to the `Singing Gallery’; that charming motive of children playing, singing, and running was too naturalistic for his time. The great geniuses of the beginning of the fifteenth century had been able to give such subjects as these artistic distinction, but their followers preferred to confine themselves to motives based more strictly upon Christian doctrine, and de-voted their art to more complex scenes which seemed to them richer in religious significance.
As a result of this same change of temper, the intimate study of nature, including in its scope all created things, which had led Ghiberti to model the borders of the Baptistery doors, and Luca to create the garlands of Or San Michele, ceased to interest the masters of the latter half of the century. True, Andrea reproduced some of Luca’s motives in this kind, but he re-produced them perfunctorily and without attempting to breathe new life into his copies. We see, therefore, that Andrea discarded some of the essential qualities of Luca’s art. Let us see what he preserved.
He preserved all the high religious quality of his uncle’s works, but there had come a change of times, even in this respect. The great nobility of sentiment handed down from the thirteenth century, and which we find still echoed in the earlier works of Luca, no longer existed in Andrea’s day; but, on the other hand, Andrea’s art was more profoundly and exclusively religious. With him the Virgin is neither the Queen of Heaven upon her exalted throne, nor is she merely a human sister playing with her little brother. She might have been either in Luca’s works. With Andrea, however, she is al-ways the Virgin Mother, the Mother of God, and the servant of the Lord, sometimes on her knees to adore Him with clasped hands, sometimes holding Him in her arms with a grace which breathes both joy and humility. Andrea was more exclusively Christian in his art than was Luca, his thoughts seem never to have been distracted by any profane preoccupation; his talent embraced the whole scope of that art, and he treated the most grandiose and moving scenes. Indeed, Andrea, who is so often considered as having had merely the gift of grace, and never to have expressed the virile or the passionate, shows himself, on the contrary, as sometimes one of the most moving and most forceful masters of the fifteenth century. We may say, by way of summary, that Andrea’s was such a soul as was that of St. Francis of Assisi, with all its ardent sensibility, its asceticism, its despite of life, and its upward yearning toward the love of God; but tender and impressionable as it was, this soul was equally fitted to express the ecstasy of celestial love and the griefs and the sufferings of human life.
Technically, Andrea availed himself of all the possibilities of the process which Luca had bequeathed to him. In his hands glazed and tinted terra-cotta work advanced almost to the rank of painting, and he produced reliefs which in richness and complexity are not undeserving to rank with pictures. He did not limit his scope, as Luca had done, to one or two figures, but at-tempted more complex scenes. Indeed, he made bas-relief an altogether different thing from what it had been under Ghiberti and Donatello; but with-out attempting to utilize perspective and without employing Donatello’s delicate gradations of modelling, or the violent contrasts of Ghiberti. Keeping his figures almost invariably in the same plane and rarely introducing any detail of landscape, Andrea contented himself with gaining contrast by the simple juxtaposition of two colors, with an occasional added touch which allowed him to give additional expression to his faces, such as marking the pupil of the eye and the line of the brow. In a word, he composed his altar-pieces in the old complex, hieratic manner of Giotto’s followers. Luca had set him an example of this type of large religious works in the bas-reliefs of the `Resurrection’ and the `Ascension,’ and these are precisely the two com-. positions which Andrea seems to have most studied, and of which the influences are most generally visible in his works.