The della Robbian plastic art tradition

13:40 01 October in Insights

robbia_greveThe monumental sculpture group representing The Mourning over the Dead Christ, that dominates the altar of the oratory of San Francesco has recovered, after a recent and skillful restoration, the refined tones and the compositional harmony that permit reconciliating the subject’s intense dramatic spirit with the solemnity of the forms typical of the best Florentine plastic art tradition.

That is because this important work, datable to the second decade of the 16th century, is the epitome of a long and experienced culture that found unparalleled applications in the Florentine Renaissance, which were widely studied by Giancarlo Gentilini, a specialist in this sector. From the beginning of the 15th century, terracotta sculpture experienced in Florence a true rebirth characterized by the recovery of classical artistic experiences; in this context, around 1440, Luca della Robbia (1399/1440-1482) developed, with technical intelligence and artistic mastery, the potentialities of clay reliefs by covering their surfaces with a ceramic enamel thus giving them new expressive values as well as making them more resistant to atmospheric agents.

Continuing his work, his nephew Andrea (1435-1525), who intensified the descriptive and sentimental aspects of the compositions, produced, often on a monumental scale, a fresh synthesis of plastic and pictorial values, causing the della Robbian language to become exceptionally widespread in the region. Of Andrea’s five sons who continued the workshop’s production in Via Guelfa, the most active and industrious was Giovanni (1469-1529), who developed an exuberant decorative vein in order to enrich his lively compositions of an eclectic taste; Luca the Younger (1475-1550) and Girolamo (1487-1560), who carried the della Robbian works to the court of Francis I in France, were instead more gifted and sensitive.

The other sons, Marco (1468-1534) and Francesco (1477-1528), Dominican brothers (Fra Mattia and Fra Ambrogio i.e. Brother Mattia and Brother Ambrogio) in the Savonarolian convent of San Marco, deviated from the family style with strong devotional characteristics that later they also spread in the Marche. At times their works are devoid of glazing so as to be able to use the cold polychromatic technique that, as well as being less expensive, produced effects of greater expressive intensity, as in the case of the Mourning in Greve and the Pietà in Terranova Bracciolini, the latter attributed to Marco, who was active also in San Vivaldo around 1510. In competition with the Della Robbia workshop, Benedetto Buglioni (1460-1520), a modest sculptor who, according to Vasari, had appropriated the “secret” of glazing, developed his own production reproposing the della Robbian typologies in a simplified and eclectic fashion; his nephew Santi (1494-1576) inherited the workshop, producing large compositions of a now manneristic style.

Glazed works were occasionally produced also by other important Florentine sculptors, such as Benedetto da Maiano, Andrea e Jacopo Sansovino, Giovan Francesco Rustici, as well as naturally Baccio da Montelupo, to whose circle the Greve Mourning has recently been compared. The traditional della Robbian technique was resumed in Florence also during the 17th century, in particular by the sculptor Antonio Novelli.

Lia Brunori Cianti

in, Museo d’arte sacra di San Francesco a Greve in Chianti. Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio. A cura di Caterina Caneva. Polistampa 2005