I SUPPOSE nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of pale blue and white earthenware, by which Luca della Robbia is best known, like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches. And no work is less imitable: like Tuscan wine, it loses its savor when moved from its birth-place, from the crumbling walls where it was first placed. Part of the charm of this work, its grace and purity and finish of expression, is common to all the Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century; for Luca was first of all a worker in marble, and his works in earthenware only transfer to a different material the principles of his sculpture.
These Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century worked for the most part in low relief. They are haters of all heaviness and emphasis, of strongly-opposed light and shade, and seek their means of expression among those last refinements of shadow, which are almost invisible except in a strong light, and which the finest pencil can hardly follow. What is the precise value of this system of sculpture, this low relief? Luca della Robbia and the other sculptors of the school to which he belongs, have before them the universal problem of their art; and this system of low relief is the means by which they meet and overcome the special limitation of sculpturea limitation resulting from the material and essential conditions of all sculptured work, and which consists in the tendency of this work to a hard realism, a one-sided presentment of mere form, that solid material frame which only motion can relieve, a thing of heavy shadows, and an individuality of expression pushed to caricature. Against this tendency to the hard presentment of mere form trying vainly to compete with the reality of nature itself, all noble sculpture constantly struggles: each great system of sculpture resisting in its own way, etherealizing, spiritualizing, relieving its hardness, its heaviness and death. The use of color in sculpture is but an unskilful contrivance to effect, by borrowing from another art, what the nobler sculpture effects by strictly appropriate means. To get not color, but the equivalent of color; to secure the expression and the play of life; to expand the too fixed individuality of pure, unrelieved, uncolored formthis is the problem which the three great styles in sculpture have solved in three different ways.
Allgemeinheitbreadth, generality, universalityis the word chosen by Winckelmann, and after him by Goethe and many German critics, to ex-press that law of the most excellent Greek sculptures, of Phidias and his pupils, which prompted them constantly to seek the type in the individual, to abstract and express only what is structural and permanent, to purge from the individual all that belongs only to him, all the accidents, the feelings, and actions of the special moment, all that (because in its own nature it endures but for a moment) is apt to look like a frozen thing if one arrests it.
In this way their works came to be like some subtle extract or essence, or almost like pure thoughts or ideas: and hence the breadth of humanity in them, that detachment from the conditions of a particular place or people, which has carried their influence far beyond the age which produced them, and insured them universal acceptance.
That was the Greek way of relieving the hardness and unspirituality of pure form. But it involved to a certain degree the sacrifice of what we call expression; and a system of abstraction which aimed always at the broad and general type, at the purging away from the individual of what belonged only to him, and of the mere accidents of a particular time and place, imposed upon the range of effects open to the Greek sculptor limits somewhat narrowly defined; and when Michelangelo came, with a genius spiritualized by the reverie of the middle age, penetrated by its spirit of inwardness and introspection, living not a mere outward life like the Greek, but a life full of inward experiences, sorrows, consolations, a system which sacrificed so much of what was inward and unseen could not satisfy him. To him, lover and student of Greek sculpture as he was, work which did not bring what was inward to the surface, which was not concerned with individual expression, with individual character and feeling, the special history of the special soul, was not worth doing at all.
And so, in a way quite personal and peculiar to himself, which often is, and always seems, the effect of accident, he secured for his work individuality and intensity of expression, while he avoided a too hard realism, that tendency to harden into caricature which the representation of feeling in sculpture must always have. This effect Michelangelo gains by leaving nearly all his sculpture in a puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than realizes actual form. Many have wondered at that incompleteness, suspecting, however, that Michelangelo himself loved and was loath to change it, and feeling at the same time that they too would lose something if the half-realized form ever quite emerged from the stone, so rough hewn here, so delicately finished there; and they have wished to fathom the charm of this incompleteness. Well! that incompleteness is Michelangelo’s equivalent for color in sculpture; it is his way of etherealizing pure form, of relieving its hard realism, and communicating to it breath, pulsation, the effect of life.
Midway between these two systemsthe system of the Greek sculptors and the system of Michelangelocomes the system of Luca della Robbia and the other Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century, partaking both of the Allgemeinheit of the Greeks, their way of extracting certain select elements only of pure form and sacrificing all the rest, and the studied incompleteness of Michelangelo, relieving that expression of intensity, passion, energy, which might otherwise have hardened into caricature. Like Michelangelo, these sculptors fill their works with intense and individualized expression, and they unite the elements of tranquillity, of repose, to intense and individual expression, by a system of conventionalism as skilful and subtle as that of the Greeks, subduing all such curves as indicate solid form, and throwing the whole into lower relief. . . .
The work of Luca della Robbia possessed in an unusual measure that special characteristic which belongs to all the workmen of his school, a characteristic which, even in the absence of much positive information about their actual history, seems to bring those workmen themselves very near to usthe impress of a personal quality, a profound expressiveness, what the French call intimité, by which is meant some subtler sense of originalitythe seal on a man’s work of what is most inward and peculiar in his moods and manner of apprehension : it is what we call expression, carried to its highest intensity of degree.
( Originally Published 1901 )
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