The della Robbia’s were a family of craftsmen that influenced the world of sculpture in Italy and beyond starting in the fifteenth century, and stretching into the sixteenth. Chief among them was Luca della Robbia, originator of the family business.

Luca della Robbia was born into a well-off family of wool merchants in Florence around 1400 (Domestici, 4). He grew up in the parish houses of San Pier Maggiore with his two older brothers, enrolled in the Wool guild when he was twenty-six, and the Stone Masons and Wood-Carvers guild six years later (4). Guilds were often an overbearing, and troublesome presence for craftsmen at the time; those who broke guild laws, or refused to pay the annual fee (no matter how famous), could easily get arrested and thrown into prison (4-5). Law-breaking rebellion, however, wasn’t a great interest for Luca. He is described by all accounts as a man of the highest moral integrity (4). He lived a long, orderly life, “free from eccentricities, major distractions, or moments of rebellion” (4). He was a devoted craftsman, with a serene temperament rare in artists at the time (and still today!). He is one the artists who put “purity” into the characteristics of the Italian Renaissance.

Luca began his work as an artist when Donatello and Ghiberti, the giants of the sculpture world, were still at large, and he was undoubtedly influenced by their work. Luca acknowledged Donatello’s realism, and Ghiberti’s naturalism, while maintaining his own style of classical equilibrium (11, 14). Luca’s gentle innovation, the confidence to move forward in the art world without denying the past, along with his calm temperament, slowly revealed him as one of the new faces of Florence, helping her ease into the pure, serene, equilibrium so characteristic of the High Renaissance (11).

Luca’s sculpting career began in marble. He was commissioned in 1431 to carve a Cantoria (Singing Gallery), to oppose Donatello’s Cantoria in the Cathedral of Florence (5, 14). The gallery is a large, rectangular structure depicting the 150th Psalm of David in ten singing-people-filled panels (14). The psalm is written in Roman lettering across the supporting beams (14). All of the figures are in motion. Boys and girls running, dancing, leaning across the frame of the panel to grab one another’s hand, their robes flowing in curved, serpentine lines. The content of the panels is fluid, the people inside almost bursting out as they sing and dance and play their instruments. Luca carved some of the figures to the marble; some standing out a little farther away, to give the viewer a greater impression of depth (as though there were a whole crowd behind each panel), and consequentially was able to fit in more figures (14). Cantoria was praised for it’s realism, and the harmony achieved in the variety of panels structured together in the gallery’s grid, much like a choir achieving harmony while singing one song in unison (14). It was moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, along with Donatello’s Cantoria in 1688 for a Medici wedding (14).

Cantoria Luca Della Robbia Musel del'Opera Firenze

Luca Della Robbia
Musel del’Opera

Several years later, in 1442, Luca returned to the Florence Cathedral with two lunettes depicting the resurrection and ascension of Christ  (17). These lunettes marked Luca’s debut into plastic arts. He created what we now know as the terracotta glaze: a ceramic treatment that protects clay with a hard, smooth exterior making ceramic sculptures impermeable. Luca had used terracotta as a decorative element in previous works, but in Resurrection and Ascension it is used as the primary medium (19).

Ascension Luca della Robbia

Luca della Robbia

Resurrection_Luca della Robbia

Luca della Robbia

Soon after Luca pioneered into the plastic art realm with Resurrection and Ascension, he was commissioned to decorate Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel  (19-20). Luca’s job was to embellish Brunelleschi’s architecture with twelve medallions (19-20). Each medallion has a blue background, containing a white apostle gilded with a golden halo at its center. The color scheme for the medallions (white on blue) gently compliments the two-tone color scheme of the interior (20). The size of the medallions: not so small that they lose their presence in the space, but not so large that they compete with the architecture (20). The sculptural skill seen in Luca’s Cantoria: his gift with sensual-looking cloth and realistic human figures is showcased in these twelve blue and white circles, as well as his gift with ceramics. His

Pazzi Chapel Santa Croce Firenze

Pazzi Chapel
Santa Croce

talent for balance and harmony, portrayed in one contained piece in Cantoria, is now put to the test of not only balancing his own work, but also keeping his work in balance with someone else’s (Brunelleschi’s architecture). Luca crafted his pieces conscientiously, working with the architecture rather than trying to steal the show. His talent for aesthetic harmony along with his sculptural skill showcased in this piece made him one of the most sought after interior designers in Florence (20).

To keep up with demand, Luca and his colleague, Marco, bought a house on via Guelfa in 1446 that later became the della Robbia Workshop, responsible for all glazing, the workplace of all of Luca’s assistants (5, 36). Luca’s invention of terracotta glazing became so popular that the workshop became internationally known and sought after by other artists and craftsmen (36). When Luca died in 1482, he left his workshop in the hands of his nephew, Andrea della Robbia, who continued the plastic arts legacy by working with increasingly more sophisticated techniques, materials, and more complex compositions and detail work (5). The workshop passed through the family for several generations, and continued to influence the world of sculpture and plastic arts long after Luca had passed away.