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Hope, love & faith

Renaissance Della Robbia sculptures on view at MFA through Dec. 4

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Hope, love & faith
“The Adoration of the Child” (after 1477), Andrea della Robbia (Italian, Florentine, 1435-1525), Italian, Renaissance, glazed terracotta. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Some sculptures leave a viewer cold. Not the works of Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1399-1482) and his family. Their sculptures inspire joy and intimate encounters with their subjects. Their colorful garlands of fruit shine with Mediterranean warmth, and the figures are so natural that they seem alive.

Such moving and beguiling works fill an entire gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), where the exhibition “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence” is on view through December 4 and then travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC from February 5–June 4, 2017. Marietta Cambareri, MFA senior curator of European sculpture, organized the exhibition and wrote most of its fine catalog. The first major U.S. offering dedicated to the story of the Della Robbia sculptures, the show presents 46 works, including six major loans from Italy never before shown here.

For about a century, from 1450 through 1550, three generations of the Della Robbia family and a few rivals who purloined their secret recipe produced glazed terracotta sculptures that became the art of choice for civic buildings, churches and homes in Renaissance Florence.

Author: Photo: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston“Dovizia (Abundance)” (about 1520), Giovanni della Robbia (Italian, Florentine, 1469-1529/30), Italian, Renaissance, glazed terracotta. Lent by Minneapolis Institute of Art, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.

Enduring color

In 1440, Luca della Robbia, already distinguished as a sculptor in marble, invented a glaze that yielded bright, shiny and enduring colors, including deep azure blues and opaque whites. His innovation revived the use of clay, a material true to the city’s Etruscan heritage. But while the painted surfaces of ancient sculptures faded over time, his colors remained bright — “almost eternal,” in the words of his contemporary, the art historian Giorgio Vasari. Drawing raw calcium-rich clay from the Arno River that ran alongside his workshop, Luca then refined it to match his proprietary glaze, boosted by lead and tin to heighten color and shine.

Luca della Robbia shared his secrets with his nephew and principal collaborator, Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525), who in turn passed them on to five of his sons, who joined the family workshop.

Rather than a chronological presentation, the exhibition is organized to show overlapping themes of hope, love and faith — values of Renaissance Florence.

A Luca della Robbia masterpiece, “The Visitation” (about 1445), from a church in Pistoia, Tuscany, renders a poignant scene from the Gospel of Luke. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, arrives to care for her aged cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. The white-glazed terracotta work unites the two figures, one aged and one young, into a single sculpture of profound power.

In his “Virgin and Child with Lilies” (1460-70), from the MFA’s collection, the plump-cheeked baby Jesus reaches for the flowers. His mother’s hands are strong as she holds him, her face a subtle study in alert, protective tenderness.

A trio of portraits showing a boy, a youth and an elder demonstrates the mastery of Andrea della Robbia. In “Bust of a Boy” (about 1475), from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, the child’s lips pucker as if he is taking a breath. His “Roundel with Head of a Youth” (1470-80), a portrait framed by a garland of fruits, lets shadows sculpt the youth’s cheeks, lips and chin. “Roundel with the Bust of a Saint” renders a character of warmth and sober wisdom rather than a figure of saccharine piety.

Author: Photo: Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston“The Visitation” (about 1445), Luca della Robbia (Italian, Florence, 1399 or 1400-1482), Italian, Renaissance, glazed terracotta. Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia. Scala/Art Resource, NY.

Fine detail

A large scale allegorical figure by Andrea della Robbia, “Prudence” (about 1475), is a bravura civic sculpture. But the smaller, eye-level works engage viewers in a feast of sensuous details. His “Adoration of the Child” (after 1477) surrounds the mother and child with a stylized trellis of fruit. The garland’s lemons have pebbled skin, the cherubs are watchful and happy, and light shapes Mary’s face like a veil. Elsewhere in the show is a lifeless 1910 reproduction by the Cantagalli workshop in Florence.

Reproductions abounded during the 19th century, when Italian glazed terracotta enjoyed a bit of a revival. Boston collectors enriched holdings at both the MFA and Harvard Art Museums. The MFA’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture features other Della Robbia works as well as Donatello’s superb marble relief “Madonna of the Clouds” (about 1425-35) and an endearing “Last Supper” in tin-glazed earthenware. Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired Della Robbias for her Venetian-style palazzo on the Fenway, and one is included in the exhibition. Della Robbia reproductions adorn St. Mary of the Assumption School in Brookline, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital.

The exhibition has been a catalyst for fresh research and conservation. A recently restored eleven-foot-wide relief by Andrea’s son Giovanni della Robbia is on view, a turbulent portrayal of the Resurrection of Christ framed by an opulent garland of fruits and vegetables. Nearby, on more intimate scale, is his statuette entitled “Dovizia (Abundance)” (about 1520), chipped but brimming with vitality.

Changing tastes

By the 16th century, Florentine tastes in statuary turned to marble and bronze and the market for terracotta faded away. Andrea’s youngest son, Girolamo, moved to France and created works for King Francis I. On view is his 1527 portrait of the king, the only known rendering of an identified sitter in glazed terracotta. Rendered in a muted palette, the bust is strong on spare, elegant swirls.

When Della Robbia rival Santi Buglioni (1494-1576) died, he took the secret recipe he had pilfered from the family’s workshop with him. Yet three of his works bear witness to the magnificence of the innovations spawned by the Della Robbia workshop. Together for the first time are three nearly life-size preaching saints fashioned by Buglioni in 1550, two decades after the Della Robbia workshop had ceased production. Figures of power and animation, the friars wear robes in a palette of brown and white, their flesh weathered and unglazed. Human figures formed from humble clay, they echo the creation of Adam.