Luca and Andrea Della Robbia – Fashioning the Family Fortune

Foundling HospitalThe imposed symmetry of the work of the architect and Dante scholar Fillipo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) in the name of geometric beauty, is beautifully captured in the design of Florence’s Foundling Hospital (Ospedale degli Innocenti).

Built between 1419-1424 the building is characterized by a great clarity in which the relations between all the parts can be expressed in terms of measurement and its overall design simplicity.

Brunelleschi started a revolution in architecture, one, which glorified Italian history and influenced the way all other architects would think in the future and the shape of buildings to come.

He was not an imitator. He was a sculptor and the Renaissance architect who evolved laws of linear perspective.

Florence BestHe is most famous for completing the Dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore at Florence (Duomo).

Brunelleschi took the various elements of his architectural repertoire, which was based on classical architecture from antiquity, the column, the capital, and rounded arch and recombined them with a mathematician’s regard for proportion.

In a fresh new way, he illuminated the art of perspective in architectural form. Brunelleschi relied on colour as an accent and within the space where his arches met he designed a tondo, or roundel that would provide an opportunity to feature beautifully rendered small relief sculptures.

TondoWhile applied at a later date, the Tondo containing relief sculptures at the Foundling Hospital in Florence were all beautifully rendered. They demonstrate the beauty and elegance of Brunelleschi’s classical geometry as allied with the humanistic spirit.

Renaissance sculptor who completed the works Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) fashioned miniature wonders, which emphasized the geometry of form, the square, the circle, the cube and the hemisphere as they were intended to do.

Andrea came from an influential Florentine family studio, whose works were primarily associated with being fashioned in enamelled terracotta as indeed, the little foundling has been.

It was Andrea’s Uncle Luca della Robbia (1399 – 1482) who first developed the new technique of glazing earthenware (terracotta), a medium in art with which the family name became associated, enabling the images to be produced.

Andrea brought his Uncle’s development to new levels of achievement in terms of modelling and colour.

Saint Michael the Archangel

Detail: Andrea della Robbia (Italian 1435-1525) ca 1475, Glazed terracotta; wood frame, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund 1960, courtes The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) New York

Their surname Robbia means Madder in English, a herb used widely in the natural dying process to produce red before the invention of synthetic dyes.

The colours of the palette they used embraced various shades of the one main colour.

Like most sculptors of his day Luca had used marble first to craft with, which was far more expensive.

The invention of the glazed terracotta technique would benefit his families clients, as other architects inspired by Brunelleschi’s new style were looking to make economies.

In 2016 The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York announced that their relief sculpture of Saint Michael the Archangel by Andrea della Robbia was back on view following restoration. It had suffered damage during an unexpected fall in 2008.

The work commissioned ca. 1475 for the church of San Michele Arcangelo in Faenza, a town in the region of Emilia-Romagna, is powerfully expressive.

Andrea assumed control of the family workshop when his Uncle died in 1482. The restoration of his St Michael has given conservators and restorers a new insight into the production of pottery during this period of the Italian Renaissance.

Della RobbiaThe conservation treatment has revealed finger and tool marks, as well as working techniques, shedding new light on how the sculpture was originally made.

Its ‘simplified palette of blue and white’ is more than impressive, it makes a powerhouse statement about the ‘Supreme Commander of the Heavenly Hosts, who commanded the ‘army of God’.

St Michael’s responsibilities were to overcome evil in the guise as Satan, lead the faithful forward to heaven as he championed not only Christians, but also the church itself.

The lunette reveals the upper body of Saint Michael wearing a costume inspired by antique sources.

DP369834The threatening sword in his hand is all about his authority and provides a direct contrast to the expression of peace on his face, which is framed by the loose curls that befit his angel status as he endeavours to bring balance to the world.


Andrea della Robbia, Virgin and Child, ca.1470-75, glazed terracotta, courtesy The Met Fifth Avenue, New York

The simplicity of the blue contrasting background colour with white as the dominant modelling colour ensures that we are drawn into his sphere so that we can discover the message this all powerful angel is duty bound to deliver.

Following the accident a review of existing wall-mounted sculpture at The Met was undertaken with security safeguards improved.

A new mounting system allows the relief to be seen clearly as a whole and the patron saint of soldiers, police and doctors has once again been reinstated close to eye-level in Gallery 500 in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries.

Brunelleschi ‘was given to us by Heaven to invest architecture with new forms’ said artist-author Georgio Vasari (1511-1574) of him in his Life of the Artists one hundred years after his death.

He also said of the family dell Robbia, that ‘no one has ever by a long chalk reached the excellence of the elder Luca, of Andrea, and of the other members of that family.

Cantoria_Della_Robbia_OPA_Florence_8Just like Luca della Robbia’s most wonderful sculptured relief his ‘Cantoris’, which graced the northern sacristy of the Duomo at Florence consisting of ten wonderful works; two groups of singing boys; trumpeters; choral dancers and children playing on musical instruments, Andrea’s sculptural reliefs were also portrayed with great realism.

Together they fashioned the family fortune.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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