10 February 2021

Luca della Robbia - sculptor

Renaissance ‘genius’ famed for glazed terracotta

Della Robbia's Resurrection over the door of
the northern sacristy in the Florence duomo
Luca della Robbia, whose work saw him spoken of in the same breath as Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti among the great sculptors of the Renaissance, died on this day in 1482 in Florence.

Della Robbia worked in marble and bronze initially but enjoyed considerable success after inventing a process for making statuary and reliefs in terracotta decorated with a colourful mineral glaze.

Thought to be around 82 or 83 years old, he had shared the full details of the process only with his family. On his death, his nephew Andrea della Robbia inherited his workshop and other members of the family, notably his great-nephews Giovanni della Robbia and Girolamo della Robbia, continued to employ his methods with success into the 16th century.

Terracotta literally means cooked earth and Della Robbia’s technique involved the application of colourful glazes made using lead, tin and other minerals to the fired clay. 

Sculpting in terracotta was not new, having been invented in the ancient world, but Della Robbia’s idea to coat the terracotta with a glaze that fused with the clay below gave the surface a brightness and shine and made the sculpture particularly durable. 

Della Robbia decorated the dome of Brunelleschi's Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce
Della Robbia decorated the dome of Brunelleschi's
Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce
It took him many years to perfect his technique. The clay itself came from riverbeds, where Della Robbia would look for a light-colored, chalky variety of clay that bound particularly well with his glazes, cleaning and sifting it before adding soft river sand to achieve optimal consistency.  The blend of minerals in the glaze itself was a closely guarded secret.

The first commissions for which Della Robbia used the technique were in the Duomo of Florence, where between 1442 and 1445 he sculpted a lunette of the Resurrection over the door of the northern sacristy and a relief of the Ascension over the southern sacristy door.

He went on to execute many more works in the medium, of which some of the most important are the roundels of the Apostles in Filippo Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, the roof of Michelozzo’s Chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, Florence, and a lunette over the entrance of the Church of San Domenico at Urbino.

His final major work was an altarpiece in the Palazzo Vescovile at Pescia, a small town just over an hour from Florence, near Montecatini Terme.

Della Robbia's bust in the Pincio Gardens in Rome
Della Robbia's bust in the Pincio
Gardens in Rome
It was the Renaissance polymath Leon Battista Alberti who compared Della Robbia to fellow sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti, ranking him also alongside the architect Brunelleschi and the painter Masaccio in terms of their artistic genius. This assessment took into account more than just his work in glazed terracotta, although his use of bright colours gave his work in the medium a particular charm that was very popular.

In the early part of his career, Della Robbia, who may have trained as a goldsmith, worked with Ghiberti on the famous bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry - the so-called Gates of Paradise.

Brunelleschi often used him for sculpture on his buildings. His important commission was for the Cantoria - a singing gallery - in Florence's Duomo, for which he was probably chosen by the Medici family.  The project took seven years and his depictions in the 10 panels of children singing, dancing and making music, the figures lively and finely observed in the manner of Renaissance naturalism, established him as a major Florentine artist.

Della Robbia’s other important works in marble include a tabernacle carved for the Chapel of San Luca in the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, and the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of nearby Fiesole.

Florence's magnificent Duomo towers above the skyline of Della Robbia's city
Florence's magnificent Duomo towers above
the skyline of Della Robbia's city
Travel tip:

The Florence Duomo - the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - with its enormous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi and campanile by Giotto, is one of Italy's most recognisable and most photographed sights, towering above the city and the dominant feature of almost every cityscape. From groundbreaking to consecration, the project took 140 years to complete and involved a series of architects. Arnolfo di Cambio, who also designed the church of Santa Croce and the Palazzo Vecchio was the original architect engaged and it was to his template, essentially, that the others worked.  When he died in 1410, 14 years after the first stone was laid, he was succeeded by Giotto, who himself died in 1337, after which his assistant Andrea Pisano took up the project.  Pisano died in 1348, as the Black Death swept Europe, and a succession of architects followed, culminating in Brunelleschi, who won a competition - against Lorenzo Ghiberti - to build the dome, which remains the largest brick-built dome ever constructed.

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Piazzo Mino is the main square in the centre of Fiesole, in the hills to the northeast of Florence
Piazzo Mino is the main square in the centre of
Fiesole, in the hills to the northeast of Florence
Travel tip:

Fiesole, a town of about 14,000 inhabitants situated in an elevated position about 8km (5 miles) northeast of Florence, has since the 14th century been a popular place to live for wealthy Florentines and even to this day remains the richest municipality in Florence.  Formerly an important Etruscan settlement, it was also a Roman town of note, of which the remains of a theatre and baths are still visible.  Fiesole's cathedral, built in the 11th century, is supposedly built over the site of the martyrdom of St. Romulus. In the middle ages, Fiesole was as powerful as Florence until it was conquered by the latter in 1125 after a series of wars.

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More reading:

Lorenzo Ghiberti and the 'Gates of Paradise'

Filippo Brunelleschi, the genius who designed the dome of the Florence duomo

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Florentine who made his mark in Rome

Also on this day:

1791: The birth of painter Francesco Hayez

1918: The death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ernesto Teodoro Moneta

1941: The birth of author and politician Raffaele Lauro

1953: The founding of the giant oil and gas company ENI

1966: The birth of footballer Andrea Silenzi

(Picture credits: Resurrection by Sailko; Pazzi Chapel ceiling by Mattis; bust of della Robbia by Lalupa; via Wikimedia Commons)


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