Magazine article The Spectator

Family Business

Magazine article The Spectator

Family Business

Article excerpt

I Della Robbia e 1"arte nuova' della scultura invetriata

(Basilica di Sant'Alessandro, Fiesole, till 1 November)

Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of A Room with a View, knew that she ought to admire Giotto's frescoes in Santa Croce but preferred the terracotta infants by Andrea Della Robbia on the Foundling Hospital. She needn't have been so defensive about her taste because those wriggling babies and their angelic siblings had won the admiration of critics as diverse as John Ruskin and Walter Pater; indeed, Ruskin ranked Andrea's uncle, Luca Della Robbia, on a par with Perugino and the young Raphael, his child angels expressing that `one pure and sacred passion which protected Christendom from the ruin of the Renaissance'. The popular culture of Renaissance Italy was shaped by Della Robbia terracotta, encompassing everything from statuary to ink wells. One hundred and fifty such works are currently on display in an exhibition which Miss Honeychurch would have found immoderately stimulating.

I Della Robbia celebrates the production of clay sculpture by three generations of that gifted family, from the 1430s to the 1550s. Set in the Basilica of Sant'Alessandro in Fiesole, the former church has been skilfully exploited to convey the original destination of the religious sculptures as well as establishing a chronological `rise and fall' in Della Robbia production, and the exhibits give the most comprehensive account of their vitrified lead glazes imaginable. It traces Luca's and Andrea's development of this new art - related to the production of majolica -- through reliefs and religious figures to the more worldly productions of Andrea's sons and imitators. What emerges simultaneously is the picture of an art form capable of the highest spiritual expressions as well as a business run on industrial lines.

As a sculptor, Luca was second only to his contemporary Donatello, but he had a cooler, more detached style, embodied in Fiesole by his famous blue and white reliefs of the Madonna and infant Christ. These works display a purity of form, enhanced by the absence of colour, and are as remote and serene as any Greek marble. Luca also understood the decorative potential of glazed sculpture, which he applied to marble tombs and chapel ceilings as well as to a novel type of portraiture, seen here in a stunning bust of a boy from Naples. …

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