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 …

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Letters

The Case of Luca Della Robbia May 1, 1980