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Della Robbia Disputes

Luca della Robbia

by John Pope-Hennessy
Cornell University Press, 288, 32 color plates, 128 black and white plates, 66 figures pp., $95.00

The posthumous reputation of the old masters may be said to follow, at any give time, the prevailing styles of contemporary art. El Greco owes his present fame, after three centuries of neglect, to Cézanne and the early Picasso rather than to the scholarly labors of art historians. He is, in fact, President Carter’s favorite painter, according to a recent dispatch in The New York Times. A hundred years ago the President’s favorite would probably have been Botticelli or, if the question were not limited to painting, Luca della Robbia, perhaps backed in either case by suitable quotations from Walter Pater.

Thanks to the researches of Aby Warburg. Botticelli escaped from the embrace of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic at the beginning of this century. Luca della Robbia was less fortunate: Allan Marquand of Princeton, who dedicated his entire scholarly life to the study of Luca and the later and lesser members of the Della Robbia clan, still shared the values of Pater and Symonds. His monograph on Luca, published in 1914 after more than twenty years of pains-taking work, is a model of late-nineteenth-century scholarship. That it should have stood unchallenged until John Pope-Hennessy began the present book in 1973 testifies less to Marquand’s achievement than to indifference. Art historians simply could no longer get excited about Luca della Robbia. Unable to share the excessive admiration in which he had been held before, they took him for granted—and left him to the tourists, that “vast public to which Renaissance art is all but a closed book,” as Pope-Hennessy calls them.

The phrase is not meant to be derogatory. Pope-Hennessy agrees with that public: Luca, he writes, “coined a language more universal than Donatello,” and the enduring ability of his sculptures to offer “human consolation or…acute aesthetic pleasure” is cited as the raison d’être of the book. Indeed, the circumstances of the author’s initial decision to write on Luca, in 1950, are recounted with unabashed sentiment—tea with Berenson at Vallombrosa in the company of the equally ancient Vittorio Orlando, the former prime minister of Italy, who spoke of Della Robbia’s enameled terracotta altarpieces as “made of sky and snow,” reawakening memories of Pater’s description of them as “fragments of the milky sky itself, falling into the cool street, and breaking into the darkened churches.”

Yet it is not to the layman that this book is addressed. Its high price indicates a small print order such as befits a serious scholarly study destined for the shelves of art libraries and specialists in Italian Renaissance sculpture. The book has all the virtues, and some of the shortcomings, of the traditional monograph: all the documents have been rechecked and are reproduced in extenso, including a few previously overlooked that turn out to be of little importance. Full account is taken of the scholarly literature on Luca as well as his contemporaries; and the author’s keen eye and incisive judgment admirably resolve countless problems of chronology and connoisseurship, such as his reattribution to Andrea della Robbia of the Via dell’Agnolo Lunette, hitherto considered a key work by Luca.

For all this, we have every reason to be grateful. Luca’s oeuvre emerges from Pope-Hennessy’s book purged of misleading accretions, and his personal achievement stands out far more clearly than before. Still, there remain some fundamental questions about Luca’s place in Florentine Early Renaissance art that the author either fails to ask or for which he does not provide a persuasive answer.

Luca poses at least three major puzzles. Born about 1400, he was so highly regarded by Leone Battista Alberti in 1436 that his name appears in the dedication of Alberti’s Treatise on Painting among the five founding fathers of Renaissance art, after Brunelleschi (who was almost a quarter century older), Donatello, and Ghiberti, and before Masaccio (who was Luca’s coeval but died in 1428). On what grounds did he gain admittance to such distinguished company? We know nothing of his activity as an artist until 1432, shortly after he had been commissioned to carve the Cantoria—actually an organ loft in the shape of a rectangular balcony—above the entrance to one of the two tribune chapels of the Florence Cathedral. This earliest documented work of Luca’s remained his most ambitious, and the only one with a clear claim to rank among the principal Quattrocento monuments, even though Luca lived on for another fifty years and continued to be active until near the end of his life.

But what had he done to earn so important a commission? The Operai, the board in charge of work on the Cathedral, would hardly have awarded it to a novice, yet we have no hint of Luca’s previous works; and the stucco roundel of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels dated 1428 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, molded from a lost bronze panel that can be ascribed to Luca with some confidence, is far too modest an effort to explain his sudden rise to prominence. The justly famous ten reliefs of the Cantoria display a distinctive style heavily dependent on Graeco-Roman sources that has no direct antecedents on Florentine soil. How did Luca develop it? Under which master, or masters, did he work before he became a master in his own right?

These problems do not detain Pope-Hennessy for long. To him, le style c’est l’homme: Luca “was an instinctive classicist, but his art grew directly from things seen,” and his personal style is adequately accounted for by “this dual relationship to the antique…and the real world.” Thus there seems to be little need to define Luca’s links with the established Florentine sculptors of his youth. According to Pope-Hennessy, Alberti’s admiration for Luca in 1436 was based on the Cantoria reliefs that had been finished by then (surely four, perhaps six); compared to what Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Masaccio had accomplished, this appears to be a less than adequate reason.

As for Luca’s training, Pope-Hennessy leans toward the thesis, advocated by the late Charles H. Seymour, Jr., that Luca spent his apprenticeship years, 1414-1421, in the workshop of Nanni di Banco, whose main enterprise during that period (he died in 1421) was the great Assumption frontispiece above the Porta della Mandorla of the Florence Cathedral. Such may indeed have been the case, although I find the attempt to recognize Luca’s hand among the angels of the Assumption unpersuasive. It is quite true that the Apostles in the Pazzi Chapel, dating from the years around 1445, owe much to Nanni’s St. Luke for the Cathedral façade, completed in 1414, but this relationship attests to Luca’s conservatism more than it does to a personal link with the older master. The classicism based on Roman portrait statues, so conspicuous in the St. Luke and Nanni’s niche figures at Or San Michele, no longer dominates the Assumption, where Nanni, with extraordinary daring, introduces flying angels whose dynamism and exuberance almost deserve to be called proto-Baroque. Strangely enough—assuming he really worked on the Porta della Mandorla frontispiece—Luca never took over this astonishing invention of Nanni’s; his flying angels, and there are dozens of them, invariably follow the more conservative type established by Ghiberti.

In view of the rapid pace at which Florentine Early Renaissance art developed in the 1420s, the question of Luca’s career during those years is more important than his apprenticeship. Here again Pope-Hennessy is too brief and too vague. He suggests that Luca “might have gravitated” to Michelozzo, a slightly older sculptor and architect who was then in partnership with Donatello, but does not explore this possible connection. The key monument linking the two artists, the Aragazzi tomb in the Cathedral of Montepulciano (or more precisely the surviving sculptured portions of it) receives only perfunctory mention. Unfortunately, that tomb a complicated and incompletely documented history extending from 1427, when it was listed as a joint commission in the tax declaration of Michelozzo, to 1438 when it was completed; some, perhaps most, of the sculpture would seem to have been carved as early as 1430, when Leonardo Bruni, in an amusing but not certainly datable letter, told of his encounter with two oxcarts taking parts of the monument to Montepulciano.

The available evidence, then, admits of two interpretations: the Aragazzi sculptures could have influenced Luca’s Cantoria or vice versa. Art historians have been wondering for many years which view is the more plausible. It would be helpful to have Pope-Hennessy’s opinion, but he has chosen to withhold it. When he does mention one of the Aragazzi reliefs, he contrasts its “inexpressive” quality with Luca’s Cantoria panels instead of pointing out the obvious similarities. Moreover, he misinterprets the subject of the relief as “Aragazzi taking leave of his Family” and complains that the figures fail to show regret. If the scene is read correctly as “Aragazzi reunited with his Family in Heaven,” the gestures and expressions are wholly appropriate. He might also have observed that two of the four earliest Cantoria panels—the narrow ones at either end, completed by mid-1434—show a particularly close kinship with the two statues from the Aragazzi tomb, right down to the Roman military boots worn by one of them and by Luca’s Boys Singing from a Scroll.

My own view, which I cannot argue in detail here, is that Luca was indeed indebted to Michelozzo rather than the other way around. Luca’s monumental Resurrection lunette of 1442-1445, his earliest documented commission in enameled terracotta, is praised by Pope-Hennessy as “the first significant Renaissance reinterpretation of the traditional Resurrection iconography,” in contrast to Ghiberti’s still Gothic Resurrection on the North Doors of the Baptistery. Luca indeed owes nothing to Ghiberti here, but the Risen Christ seems to me clearly indebted to the even more majestic Risen Christ of the Aragazzi tomb (often mislabeled a St. Bartholomew). Such an echo, after the lapse of roughly a decade, is a striking indication of how strong an impulse Luca received from Michelozzo at a critical stage of his development.

Although a meticulous and keen-eyed observer, Pope-Hennessy sometimes misses a cue that he himself has provided. The Tambourine Players panel of the Cantoria is a case in point: he notes that two of the seven figures have wings but does not alert us to the fact that these are the only two so equipped among all the performers on the ten panels. Elsewhere, he refers to an earlier scholar’s claim that the Tambourine Players, or at least a model for the design, must be placed at the very beginning of the sequence, since the composition is reflected in a picture by the Sienese painter Domenico di Bartolo dated 1433. Yet he attaches no significance to this argument, another indication of the unique role of the Tambourine Players, and proposes a date of 1435 for the panel. If he sees no link between Luca’s relief and Domenico di Bartolo, he ought to say so. If he acknowledges the relationship, he should tell us what conclusions can be drawn from it.

Another intriguing problem the author fails to pursue is presented by the five reliefs Luca carved in 1437-1439 for the north face of the Campanile. “No iconographic programme for the reliefs proposed to date is wholly satisfactory,” he writes, after carefully identifying each of the subjects as representing a liberal art. The other two reliefs on the north face were carved a century earlier as part of a set of twenty-one for the other faces of the Campanile by Andrea Pisano; they had been removed from their original position on the east face when the doorway to the tower was enlarged and thus became available for reinstallation on the north face, which had been excluded from Andrea Pisano’s scheme. Must we credit the long arm of coincidence with the fact that the two Trecento reliefs transferred to the north face happen to represent Apelles (Painting) and Phidias (Sculpture) and that in 1437-1439 they were combined into a set with Luca’s five liberal arts? In antiquity and the Middle Ages, what we now call the fine arts had been classed with the crafts, or mechanical arts; the claim that they deserve parity with the more aristocratic liberal arts was first voiced in Florence around 1400 and zealously pursued by humanists such as Leone Battista Alberti. In view of this, it is tempting to regard the seven reliefs on the north face of the Campanile as a visual statement of the same claim. Pope-Hennessy not only resists the temptation, he seems unaware of it.

Luca’s popular fame rests not on his works in marble but on his invention of sculpture in enameled terracotta. From the early 1440s on, he worked almost exclusively in the new technique. Pope-Hennessy stoutly—and rightly—defends Vasari’s statement that Luca was indeed the originator of the process, and makes a plausible case for regarding certain imperfectly glazed Madonna reliefs as Luca’s early experiments dating from the time of the Cantoria. With equal firmness, however, he dismisses as legend Vasari’s claim that Luca was motivated by the desire to find a substitute for sculpture in marble and bronze that would be cheaper than either, and that the glaze had the purpose of protecting terracotta sculpture from decay. Here, it seems to me, the author is being unnecessarily rigid. The reasons given by Vasari surely were not the only ones for Luca’s invention but they are not incompatible with the one given by Pope-Hennessy, i.e., the desire to enrich sculpture with color. He argues that enameling could not have been primarily intended to preserve terracotta sculpture in the open air because Luca’s earliest known commissions in the new medium were all for indoor pieces such as the two lunettes above the entrances to the tribune chapels of the Cathedral. Aside from the possibility that Luca may have produced enameled terracotta sculpture for outdoor placement before 1442 of which no record has survived, we can hardly doubt that he knew that unglazed terracotta sculpture for outdoor use had been made for a long time and that it did present a problem of preservation which his glaze would solve.

The most dramatic case on record is Donatello’s gigantic Joshua of 1410-1412, a terracotta statue eighteen feet tall made up of many small pieces for one of the buttresses of the Cathedral; for years, the Cathedral workshop tried to preserve it with coats of linseed oil and white lead—ultimately to no avail. In 1415, Donatello and Brunelleschi experimented, apparently without success, with an alternative method of protection, a covering of gilt lead. Luca must have been aware of all this. As for the two lunettes in the Cathedral, Pope-Hennessy states that “in these positions marble reliefs would have been imperfectly visible and would therefore have been inapposite.” Again we have difficulty following his logic: does he imply that the white of glazed terracotta is significantly more brilliant than white marble? The difference can hardly be that striking. If he is referring to color, the earlier of the two lunettes is all white except for the blue background. Had the lunette been carved of marble, the same effect could have been obtained either by painting the background blue or by covering it with an inlay of blue glass or blue-glazed terracotta slabs (there is ample precedent for both procedures).

The lunette, then, is in effect a cheaper substitute for marble. In the second lunette, the vegetation and the ground are glazed in subdued tones of green but the figures remain white, as they do in the Apostle roundels of the Pazzi Chapel. Not until the 1460s do we find color applied to the figures in glazed terracotta sculpture. As a rule of thumb, therefore, it seems to be true that the earlier the date of a piece of glazed terracotta sculpture, the more it evokes the appearance of marble. Nor is this restraint due to technical limitations, for in purely ornamental settings such as the frieze and base of the Peretola Tabernacle, Luca used a variety of colored glazes as early as 1441-1443. It was indeed his awareness that he was competing with the older and more expensive material that kept Luca’s sculptural ambition alive and inspired his finest works in the new technique such as the two kneeling candelabra angels in the Florence Cathedral, the Visitation in Pistoria, and the Impruneta Crucifixion. As he and his workshop gradually lost the “marble standard,” glazed terracotta sculpture tended to become a mass medium, endlessly replicable and fit only for village churches.


The Case of Luca Della Robbia May 1, 1980

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