Andrea della Robbia, Italian, 1435-1525

SN 1393, glazed terra cotta

From "The Pages"

The Della Robbias were an Italian family of sculptors & potters, active in Florence from the early 15th c. Family members were traditionally employed in the textile industry, their name deriving from rubia tinctorum, a red dye.Luca founded the family workshop, & is credited with the invention of the distinctive tin-glazed terra cotta sculptures which made them famous.

Andrea della Robbia was his nephew, who trained with Luca; by 1470 he was in charge of the workshop, which he eventually inherited. He tended to use more complex compositions, & added polychrome glazing to the simple blue-&-white favored by his uncle. Their wide range of products included tabernacles, pulpits, fonts, & lavabos, etc. as well as relief sculptures for private devotions, framed by cherubim & garlands. Andrea became a follower of Girolama Savonarola in the early 1490s; Savonarola had been prior of the Dominican monastery of S Marco in Florence.
Five of his sons also worked in the shop. Two of his sons, Marco & Francesco became Dominican monks, but continued with sculpture. Girolamo was the only son to continue the reputation beyond the mid-16th c; he spent much of his time in France, working for the royal court.

This is a sculptured relief of the Mother and Christ child, a theme popular at the time of the “Cult of the Virgin,” when many chapels in wealthy homes held such a work. The Madonna wears a hooded cloak, and supports the standing, naked Child on her lap. She looks sorrowful, her eyes cast downward. The Child’s expression is also sad.

The history of glazed terra cotta goes back to antiquity. Persians taught the process to Arabs, they brought it to Spain & Sicily. Later, factories were established in Majorca, & in trade with countries along the Mediterranean coast, the glazed pottery became known as Majolica. By the close of the 14th c, the most important potteries in Europe were established in Italy. However, until the Della Robbias, the process of glazing terra cotta had been applied only to household utensils.

The process starts with the baking of terra cotta models. Then, in sections, the pieces are immersed in a bath of enamel from which they emerge covered with a thick, coarse, white glaze. Then they are fired a second time to refine the finish. Parts that are to remain white are baked again, while those to be colored are first brushed with colored glazes before baking again.

The beauty of the Della Robbia work is the purity & creamy color of the enamel and the texture of its surface. The secret of their glazes seems to have died with them. Legend avers that Luca, before his death, wrote the formula on parchment & hid it in the head of one of his figures. The hunt for the secret may account for so many pieces being broken! Art historians believe the secret to the quality lies in the great pains Luca took, which tenet he passed on to Andrea. Unfortunately, subsequent workers were less exacting.

Museum Label:
Madonna and Child
Date: 15th century
Dimensions: 26 7/8 x 19 5/8 in. (68.3 x 49.8 cm)
Medium: Glazed terracotta relief in a carved, painted and gilded frame
Credit Line: Bequest of John Ringling, 1936
Description: In the 15th century, Italian sculptors used much more than stone to create devotional and personal images. Although most equate Renaissance sculpture with Michelangelo's marble work and the bronzes of Donatello, many artists, such as Andrea della Robbia often used terracotta, a less expensive material, to craft smaller images for display in private residences and churches. For this Madonna and Child, Andrea would have sculpted the work using soft clay from the Arno River bed. After the firing process, the white varnish of the figures would have been created by adding tin to a standard glaze while the blue of the background was the result of a mixture of glaze and cobalt. The colored glazes protect the surface of the otherwise fragile terracotta and, in the case of the figures, approximate the appearance of polished marble.