Luca della Robbia

The Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400?-1482) is usually remembered for his singularly lovely images of the Madonna and Child in glazed terra-cotta.

Luca della Robbia was praised by his compatriot Leon Battista Alberti for genius comparable to that of the sculptors Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and the painter Masaccio. By ranking him with contemporary artists of this stature, Alberti reminds us of the interest and strength of Luca's work in marble and bronze, as well as in the terra-cottas always associated with his name.

There are no certain details of Luca della Robbia's youth, training, or early sculpture, and many of his most popular later works cannot be dated absolutely. He was born in Florence. His first documented commission, the marble Singing Gallery (1431-1438) for the Cathedral of Florence, proves that he must have been an accomplished artist long before joining the Sculptors' Guild in 1432. The Singing Gallery shows children singing, dancing, and making music to "praise the Lord" in the words of Psalm 150. Their figures are at once lively, finely observed, and gracefully combined in groups designed to fit the 10 panels of the gallery.

In the next 2 decades Luca executed important commissions in marble and bronze: a series of marble reliefs (1437) for the bell tower of the Cathedral of Florence; a marble and enameled terra-cotta tabernacle (1443), now in S. Maria in Peretola; bronze angels to enrich the Singing Gallery; and, in collaboration with Michelozzo, the large project of bronze doors for the Sacristy of the Cathedral. These doors were not finished until 1469; their reliance on a few figures placed in simple, orderly compositions against a flat ground contrasts sharply with the elaborate pictorial effects of Ghiberti's more famous Baptistery doors.

Although the data of Luca's first work in colored, glazed terra-cotta is not known, his control of this medium was clearly enough recognized to justify two major commissions for the Cathedral of Florence: the large reliefs Resurrection (1445) and Ascension of Christ (1446). The pliant medium of baked clay covered with a "slip" of vitrified lead and refined permitted a lustrous, polished surface capable of reflecting light and using color that was beautifully appropriate for architectural sculpture. Whether animating the vast, somber space of the Cathedral or in the series Twelve Apostles gracing the pristine surfaces of the small Pazzi Chapel (1443-1450) in Florence, Luca's reliefs in this medium achieved a perfection never before or since attained.

Working with assistants, including members of his own family, Luca produced a number of decorative reliefs and altarpieces until the end of his life. One of the finest and richest examples is the enameled terra-cotta ceiling (1466) of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in S. Miniato, Florence. Luca della Robbia died in Florence in February 1482.


Further Reading on Luca della Robbia

Allan Marquand, Luca della Robbia (1914), remains the most important and readable monograph on the artist. The earliest account of Luca della Robbia, in Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, translated by Gaston De Vere (1914), is sympathetic but should be supplemented by Charles Seymour's more recent Sculpture in Italy, 1400-1500 (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Gaeta Bertela, Giovanna, Luca, Andrea, Giovanni Della Robbia, London: Constable, c. 1979.

Pope-Hennessy, John Wyndham, Sir, Luca della Robbia, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.