Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Luca Della Robbia: South Kensington and the Victorian Revival of a Florentine Sculptor

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Luca Della Robbia: South Kensington and the Victorian Revival of a Florentine Sculptor

Article excerpt

The time has come for doing justice to [Luca della Robbia]. Amongst the men of genius of the middle ages who remained without appreciation, few were so long or so completely forgotten.1

In Britain, over the course of the nineteenth century, Luca della Robbia rose from the forgotten realms of early Italian sculpture to become known as 'the most popular sculptor of the fifteenth century'.2 In the 1820s, della Robbia had been ignored by the great sculptor John Flaxman, who stated in his Lectures on Sculpture that 'we may, without neglecting our great purpose, (the principles of art,) pass over the intermediate names between Donatello and Michael Angelo, as having added little to the value of modern sculpture'.3 Della Robbia's Victorian revival and rise in popularity subsequently occurred alongside the mid- to late-century reinterpretations of the fledgling term 'Renaissance'. In 1873, Walter Pater's landmark text, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, even devoted an entire chapter to the previously neglected sculptor.4 These revisions, characterized by a complex reorganization of the chronological and conceptual boundaries of the Renaissance, invited back into the light those sculptors, like della Robbia, formerly in the shadow of Michelangelo and Donatello, and repositioned them within the canon of Italian art.

This shift in academic focus coincided with the rapid development of the Italian sculpture collection at the South Kensington Museum. Throughout the 1850s, the museum evolved from a small collection of teaching aids at the Government School of Design into an educational, public institution that boasted an extensive collection of decorative arts and manufactures of exceptional quality. It was hoped that the presence of such an exemplary collection would contribute to the improvement of modern British manufacture, the quality and popularity of which had fallen behind its European competitors. Between 1852 and 1862, the museum's focus turned towards the acquisition of a vast collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance sculpture, ceramics and ornament. South Kensington's scholarly promotion of this Italian collection played a vital role in the development of della Robbia's Victorian popularity and the following discussion provides a much-needed examination of the detailed 1862 catalogue, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages and Period of the Revival of Art, produced by curator John Charles Robinson to accompany the collection.5 Robinson, the museum's first curator, had previously been employed as headmaster at the Hanley School of Design in the Potteries and was a connoisseur at heart. Throughout his tenure as curator at South Kensington (1853-63) he placed an emphasis upon the scholarly promotion of the exhibits and was particularly knowledgeable in the field of the Italian decorative arts.

By 1862, the work of the della Robbia family dominated the South Kensington Italian sculpture collection and catalogue, but to bring Luca della Robbia back from obscurity involved not only a large presence of his work in the museum, but also a calculated 'hybridization' on the part of Robinson and subsequent academic promoters. This hybridization came from the fusion of Early Renaissance and Victorian ideals and constituted what Mieke Bal would refer to as 'preposterous' history - a dialectical relationship between past and present concerns.6 In this case, I suggest, the dialectic was synthesized in Robinson's reinvention and promotion of della Robbia as a true Ruskinian - a fifteenth-century sculptor and artisan deeply entrenched in the leading artistic and artisanal ideals of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly those originating with John Ruskin.

To strengthen the idea that a 'preposterous hybridization' of della Robbia and Ruskin had an important positive effect on the sculptor's Victorian popularity, I frame the argument further by considering Ruskin's personal and academic reactions to the work of his fifteenth-century 'follower'. …

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