IT is one of the most striking evidences of an age of great activity and warmth of intellectual impulse, that genius, getting impatient of universal repetition, strikes out for itself new paths on every sidenot so great, in-deed, as the old broad highways of everlasting art, yet always interesting so long as genius continues to tread them, and they are not left to that feeble imitation which sooner or later succeeds to every original work. Luca della Robbia was not one of those great men who dominate art and leave upon it an impression which lasts for generations. He had not the vigor and force of his contemporary, Donatello, to take possession of and give a new, bold impulse to the highest branch of sculpture; but it would seem that he was impatient of the meaner fate of toiling after another’s footsteps and taking a secondary place in the profession he loved. Perhaps even the inferior effect, when carried to their places, of his own carefully finished groups in comparison with Donatello’s dashing bozza may have stimulated the artist to seek for a way of his own in which his special qualities might tell at their best.
“Feeling,” Vasari says, “that he had advanced but little with very great labor” in that larger field of art where there were so many competitors, “he resolved to leave marble and bronze, and to see if he could find better fruit elsewhere. Therefore, considering that clay was easily worked with little labor, if a method could only be found to make it adhere and to defend it from the action of time,” he betook himself to scientific experiments to find an invetriamento, glassing or glaze, which “should make works in clay almost eternal.” It is not within our range to discuss whether Luca was really the sole and first inventor of this method; but at least he was the first great artist who worked in majolica, and his beautiful groups in this material are the chief things that will occur to any reader in connection with his name. Nothing more lovely, pure, and tender than his white visionary Madonnas and divine children can well be conceived; the spotless material and the delicate art lend themselves to each other, and to this oft-renewed and always delightful subject, with a touching appropriateness. They are like embodied dreams, ethereal and pure and colorless, things made of heavenly mist or cloud.
The special use of this new invention, as not only beautiful in itself but affording a means of ornamentation for places dove sono acque, where pictures cannot be placed in consequence of the damp, is much insisted upon by Vasari. Even the damp corners demanded ornament.in those wealthy days when artists abounded, and imagination could not picture to itself the hum-blest sanctuary or the most common house without some attempt at beauty as well as use. The invention binds together the craft of the workman with the genius of the artist.
Nothing can be more poetical than those white foam-groups glancing out of dark corners, over doorways, always with a delightful surprise to the spectator which is almost like a natural effect; for there is nothing that more piques and pleases the fancy than the adaptation of a thing so common to uses so beautiful. The soft, sympathetic angels, the round limbs of the lovely children, the serious, sweet Madonnas, glimmering in a light which proceeds from themselves, or seems to do so, are always delightful to behold. In con-vent cloisters, over the doors of hospitals, here and there hung on a bit of dark wall in some aisle chapel, they make a mild radiance about them, a softened homely illumination, not great, but sweet, and full of ethereal and visionary grace.
And at the same time what a busy bottega the new invention made! All the princes and the trades sent their commissions to the master. “The fame of his works flew not only through Italy, but over all Europe, and so many wished to have them that the Florentine merchants kept Luca continually at work.” The Della Robbias made a school of themselves, keeping the secret among them with all the precautions natural to a family treasure. Andrea became famous like his uncle; and the race did not last long enough to fall into much bad work, but came to an end in the third generation, carrying with it the invention and the secret. Perhaps it was well so, both for the fame of the Della Robbia work and for the taste of posterity. So easy a material could scarcely have avoided debasement and degradation in times of less originality and power.
( Originally Published 1901 )
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