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LUCA DELLA ROBBIA (1400-1482)
and the Della Robbia Family

Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists



DELLA ROBBIA, sculptor of Florence, was born in the year 1388 the house of his ancestors, which is in Florence, below the Church of Barnaba ; and therein he was honestly brought up until he had learnt not only to read and write but also to cast accounts, in so far as it was likely to be needful, after the custom of most Florentines. And afterwards he was placed by his father to learn the art of the goldsmith with Leonardo di Ser Giovanni, who was then held the best master of that art in Florence. Now, having learnt under this man to make designs and to work in wax, Luca grew in courage and applied himself to making certain things in marble and in bronze, which, seeing that he succeeded in them well enough, brought it about that he completely abandoned his business of goldsmith and applied himself to sculpture, insomuch that he did nothing but ply his chisel all day and draw all night ; and this he did with so great zeal, that, feeling his feet very often freezing at night, he took to keeping them in a basket full of shavings, such as carpenters strip from planks when they shape them with the plane, in order to warm them without giving up his drawing. Nor do I marvel in any way at this, seeing that no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.

Luca was barely fifteen years of age when he was summoned, together with other young sculptors, to Rimini, in order to make some figures and other ornaments in marble for Sigismondo di Pandolfo Malatesti, Lord of that city, who was then having a chapel made in the Church of S. Francesco, and a tomb for his wife, who had died. Luca had given an honorable proof of his knowledge in some low reliefs in this work, which are still seen there, when he was recalled by the Wardens of Works of S. Maria del Fiore to Florence, where, for the campanile of that church, he made five little scenes in marble, which are on the side that faces the church, and which were wanting, according to the design of Giotto, to go with that wherein are the Sciences and Arts, formerly made, as it has been said, by Andrea Pisano. In the first Luca made Donato teaching grammar; in the second, Plato and Aristotle, standing for philosophy; in the third, a figure playing a lute, for music; in the fourth, a Ptolemy, for astrology; and in the fifth, Euclid, for geometry. These scenes, in perfection of finish, in grace, and in design, were far in advance of the two made, as it has been said, by Giotto, in one of which Apelles, standing for painting, is working with his brush, while in the other Pheidias, representing sculpture, is laboring with his chisel.

Wherefore the said Wardens of Works who, besides the merits of Luca, were persuaded thereunto by Messer Vieri de' Medici, then a great citizen and a friend of the people, who loved Luca dearly commissioned him, in the year 1405, to make the marble ornament for the organ which the Office of Works was then having made on a very grand scale, to be set up over the door of the sacristy of the said church. In certain scenes at the base of this work Luca made the singing choirs, chanting in various fashions; and he put so much zeal into this labor and succeeded so well therein, that, although it is sixteen braccia from the ground, one can see the swelling of the throats of the singers, the leader of the music beating with his hands on the shoulders of the smaller ones, and, in short, diverse manners of sounds, chants, dances, and other pleasing actions that make up the delight of music. Next, on the great cornice of this ornament Luca placed two figures of gilded metal namely, two nude angels, wrought with a high finish, as is the whole work, which was held to be something very rare, although Donatello, who afterwards made the ornament of the other organ, which is opposite to the first, made his with much more judgment and mastery than Luca had shown, will be told in the proper place; for Donatello executed that work Imost wholly with bold studies and with no smoothness of finish, to ic end that it might show up much better from a distance, as it does, lan that of Luca, which, although it is wrought with good design and liligence, is nevertheless so smooth and highly finished that the eye, reason of the distance, loses it and does not grasp it well, as it does lat of Donatello, which is, as it were, only sketched.

To this matter craftsmen should pay great attention, for the reason lat experience teaches us that all works which are to be viewed from distance, whether they be pictures, or sculptures, or any other similar ling whatsoever, have more vivacity and greater force if they are made the fashion of beautiful sketches than if they are highly finished ; id besides the fact that distance gives this effect, it also appears that /ery often in these sketches, born in a moment from the fire of art, a lan's conception is expressed in a few strokes, while, on the contrary, fort and too great diligence sometimes rob men of their force and judg- icnt, if they never know when to take their hands off the work that they re making. And whosoever knows that all the arts of design, not to speak only of painting, are similar to poetry, knows also that even as poems thrown off by the poetic fire are the true and good ones, and better than those made with great effort, so, too, the works of men excellent in the arts of design are better when they are made at one sitting by the force of that fire, than when they go about investigating one thing after another with effort and fatigue. And he who has from the beginning, as he should have, a clear idea of what he wishes to do, ever advances resolutely and with great readiness to perfection. Nevertheless, seeing that all intellects are not of the same stamp, there are some, in fact, although they are rare, who cannot work well save at their leisure; and to say nothing of the painters, it is said that the most reverend and most learned Bembo among the poets sometimes labored many months, perchance even years, at the making of a sonnet, if we can believe those who affirm it; wherefore it is no great marvel that this should happen sometimes to some of the masters of our arts. But for the most part the rule is to the contrary, as it has been said above, although the vulgar think more of a certain external and obvious delicacy that proves to lack the essential qualities, which are made up for by diligence, than of the good, wrought with reason and judgment, but not so highly finished and polished on the outside.

But to return to Luca; the said work being finished and giving great satisfaction, he was entrusted with the bronze door of the said sacristy, which he divided into ten squares namely, five on either side, making the head of a man at every corner of each square, in the border; and he varied the heads one from another, making young men, old, and middle-aged, some bearded and some shaven, and, in short, each one beautiful of its kind in diverse fashions, so that the framework of that door was beautifully adorned. Next, in the scenes in the squares to begin at the upper part he made the Madonna with the Child in her arms, with most beautiful grace; and in the one beside it, Jesus Christ issuing from the Sepulchre. Below these, in each of the first four squares, is the figure of an Evangelist; and below these, the four Doctors of the Church, who are writing in different attitudes. And the whole of this work is so highly finished and polished that it is a marvel, and gives us to know that it was a great advantage to Luca to have been a goldsmith.

But since, on reckoning up after these works how much there had come to his hand and how much time he spent in making them, he recognized that he had gained very little and that the labor had been very great, he resolved to abandon marble and bronze and to see whether he could gather better fruits from another method. Wherefore, reflecting that clay could be worked easily and with little labour, and that it was only necessary to find a method whereby works made with it might be preserved for a long time, he set about investigating to such purpose that he found a way to defend them from the injuries of time; for, after having made many experiments, he found that by covering them with a coating of glaze, made with tin, litharge, antimony, and other minerals and mixtures fused together in a special furnace, he could produce this effect very well and make works in clay almost eternal. For this method of working, as being its inventor, he gained very great praise, and all the ages to come will therefore owe him an obligation.

Having then succeeded in this as much as he could desire, he resolved that his first works should be those that are in the arch over the bronze door which he had made for the sacristy, below the organ of S. Maria del Fiore ; and therein he made a Resurrection of Christ, so beautiful for that time that it was admired, when placed in position, as something truly rare. Moved by this, the said Wardens of Works desired that the arch over the door of the other sacristy, where Donatello had made the ornament of the other organ, should be filled by Luca in the same manner with similar figures and works in terracotta; wherefore Luca made therein a very beautiful Jesus Christ ascending into Heaven.

Now, not being yet satisfied with this beautiful invention so lovely and so useful, above all for places where there is water, and where, because of damp or other reasons, there is no scope for paintings Luca went on seeking further progress, and, instead of making the said works in clay simply white, he added the method of giving them colour, with incredible marvel and pleasure to all. Wherefore the Magnificent Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, one of the first to commission Luca to fashion coloured works in clay, caused him to execute the whole of the round vaulting of a study in the Palace built, as it will be told, by his father Cosimo with various things of fancy, and likewise the pavement, which was something singular and very useful for the summer. And seeing that this method was then very difficult, and that many precautions were necessary in the firing of the clay, it is certainly a marvel that Luca could execute these works with so great perfection that both the vaulting and the pavement appear to be made, not of many pieces, but of one only. The fame of these works spreading not only throughout Italy but throughout all Europe, there were so many who desired them that the merchants of Florence, keeping Luca, to his great profit, continually at this labor, sent them throughout the whole world. And because he could not supply the whole, he took his brothers, Ottaviano and Agostino, away from the chisel, and set them to work on these labors, wherein the three of them together gained much more than they had done up to then with the chisel, for the reason that, besides those of their works that were sent to France and Spain, they also wrought many things in Tuscany ; and in particular, for the said Piero de' Medici, in the Church of S. Miniato al Monte, the vaulting of the marble chapel, which rests on four columns in the middle of the church, and which they divided most beautifully into octagons. But the most notable work of this kind that ever issued from their hands was the vaulting of the Chapel of S. Jacopo, where the Cardinal of Portugal is buried, in the same church. In this, although it has no salient angles, they made the four Evangelists in four medallions at the corners, and the Holy Spirit in a medallion in the middle of the vaulting, filling the other spaces with scales which follow the curve of the vaulting and diminish little by little till they reach the centre, insomuch that there is nothing better of that kind to be seen, nor anything built and put together with more diligence.

Next, in a little arch over the door of the Church of S. Piero Buonconsiglio, below the Mercato Vecchio, he made the Madonna with some angels round her, all very vivacious; and over a door of a little church near S. Piero Maggiore, in a lunette, he made another Madonna with some angels, which are held very beautiful. And in the Chapterhouse of S. Croce, likewise, built by the family of the Pazzi under the direction of Pippo di Ser Brunellesco, he made all the glazed figures that are seen therein both within and without. And Luca is said to have sent some very beautiful figures in full relief to the King of Spain, together with some works in marble. For Naples, also, he made in Florence the marble tomb for the infant brother of the Duke of Calabria, with many glazed ornaments, being assisted by his brother Agostino.

After these works, Luca sought to find a way of painting figures and scenes on a level surface of terracotta, in order to give long life to pictures, and made an experiment in a medallion which is above the shrine of the four saints without Orsanmichele, on the level surface of which, in five parts, he made the instruments and insignia of the Guilds of the Masters in Wood and Stone, with very beautiful ornaments. And he made two other medallions in the same place, in relief, in one of which, for the Guild of Apothecaries, he made a Madonna, and in the other, for the Mercatanzia, a lily on a bale, which has round it a festoon of fruits and foliage of various sorts, so well made, that they appear to be real and not of painted terracotta. In the Church of S. Brancazio, also, he made a tomb of marble for Messer Benozzo Federighi, Bishop of Fiesole, and Federighi himself lying on it, portrayed from nature, with three other half-length figures; and in the ornament of the pilasters of this work, on the level surface, he painted certain festoons with clusters of fruit and foliage, so lifelike and natural, that nothing better could be done in oil and on panel with the brush. Of a truth, this work is marvellous and most rare, seeing that Luca made the lights and shades in it so well, that it scarcely appears possible for this to be done by the action of fire. And if this craftsman had lived longer than he did, even greater works would have been seen to issue from his hands, since, a little before he died, he had begun to make scenes and figures painted on a level surface, whereof I once saw some pieces in his house, which lead me to believe that he would have easily succeeded in this, if death, which almost always snatches the best men away just when they are on the point of conferring some benefit on the world, had not robbed him of life before his time.

Luca was survived by Ottaviano and Agostino, his brothers, and from Agostino there was born another Luca, who was very learned in his day. Now Agostino, pursuing the art after the death of Luca, made the facade of S. Bernardino in Perugia in the year 1461, with three scenes in low relief therein and four figures in the round, executed very well and with a delicate manner; and on this work he put his name in these words,


AUGUSTINI FLORENTINI LAPICIDE. 

Of the same family was the nephew of Luca, Andrea, who worked very well in marble, as it is seen in the Chapel of S. Maria delle Grazie, without Arezzo, where he made for the Commune, in a great ornament of marble, many little figures both in the round and in half relief; which ornament was made for a Virgin by the hand of Parri di Spinello of Arezzo. The same man made the panel in terracotta for the Chapel of Puccio di Magio, in the Church of S. Francesco in the same city, and that representing the Circumcision for the family of the Bacci. In S. Maria in Grado, likewise, there is a very beautiful panel by his hand with many figures; and on the high altar of the Company of the Trinita there is a panel by his hand containing a God the Father, who is supporting Christ Crucified in His arms, surrounded by a multitude of angels, while S. Donatus and S. Bernard are kneeling below. In the church and in other parts of the Sasso della Vernia, likewise, he made many panels, which have been well preserved in that desert place, where no painting could have remained fresh for even a few years. The same Andrea wrought all the figures in glazed terracotta which are in the Loggia of the Hospital of S. Paolo in Florence, and which are passing good; and likewise the boys, both swathed and nude, that are in the medallions between one arch and another in the Loggia of the Hospital of the Innocenti, which are all truly admirable and prove the great talent and art of Andrea; not to mention many, nay, innumerable other works that he made in the course of his life, which lasted eighty-four years. Andrea died in the year 1528, and I, while still a boy, talked with him and heard him say nay, boast that he had taken part in bearing Donato to the tomb; and I remember that the good old man showed no little pride as he spoke of this.

But to return to Luca; he was buried, with the rest of his family, in their ancestral tomb in S. Piero Maggiore, and in the same tomb there was afterwards buried Andrea, who left two sons, friars in S. Marco, where they received the habit from the Reverend Fra Girolamo Savonarola, to whom that Delia Robbia family was ever devoted, portraying him in that manner which is still seen to-day in the medals. The same man, besides the said two friars, had three other sons: Giovanni, who devoted himself to art and had three sons, Marco, Lucantonio, and Simone, who died of plague in the year 1527, having given great promise; and Luca and Girolamo, who devoted themselves to sculpture. Of these two, Luca was very diligent in glazed works, and he made with his own hand, besides many other things, the pavements of the Papal Loggie which Pope Leo X caused to be made in Rome under the direction of Raffaello da Urbino, and also those of many apartments, wherein he put the insignia of that Pontiff. Girolamo, who was the youngest of all, devoted himself to working in marble, in clay, and in bronze, and had already become an able man, by reason of competing with Jacopo Sansovino, Baccio Bandinelli, and other masters of his time, when he was brought by certain Florentine merchants to France, where he made many works for King Francis at Madri, a place not far distant from Paris, and in particular a palace with many figures and other ornaments, with a kind of stone like our Volterra gypsum, but of a better quality, for it is soft when it is worked, and afterwards with time becomes hard.

He also wrought many things in clay at Orleans and made works throughout that whole kingdom, acquiring fame and very great wealth. After these works, hearing that he had no relative left in Florence save his brother Luca, and being himself rich and alone in the service of King Francis, he summoned his brother to join him in those parts, in order to leave him in credit and good circumstances, but it fell out otherwise, for in a short time Luca died there, and Girolamo once more found himself alone and without any of his kin; wherefore he resolved to return, in order to enjoy in his own country the riches that his labor and sweat had brought him, and also to leave therein some memorial of himself, and he was settling down to live in Florence in the year 1553, when he was forced to change his mind, as it were, for he saw that Duke Cosimo, by whom he was hoping to be honorably employed, was occupied with the war in Siena; whereupon he returned to die in France. And not only did his house remain closed and his family become extinct, but art was deprived of the true method of making glazed work, for the reason that, although there have been some after them who have practised that sort of sculpture, nevertheless they have all failed by a great measure to attain to the excellence of the elder Luca, Andrea, and the others of that family. Wherefore, if I have spoken on this subject at greater length, perchance, than it appeared to be necessary, let no man blame me, seeing that the fact that Luca discovered this new form of sculpture which, to my knowledge, the ancient Romans did not have made it necessary to discourse thereon, as I have done, at some length. And if, after the Life of the elder Luca, I have given some brief account of his descendants, who have lived even to our own day, I have done this in order not to have to return to this subject another time.

Luca, then, while passing from one method of work to another, from marble to bronze, and from bronze to clay, did this not by reason of laziness or because he was, as many are, capricious, unstable, and dis- contented with his art, but because he felt himself drawn by nature to new things and by necessity to an exercise according to his taste, both less fatiguing and more profitable. Wherefore the world and the arts of design became the richer by a new, useful, and most beautiful art, and he gained immortal and everlasting glory and praise. Luca was an excellent and graceful draughtsman, as it may be seen from some drawings in our book with the lights picked out with white lead, in one of which is his portrait, made by him with much diligence by looking at himself in a mirror.



Andrea Della Robbia. Portrait of a Young Man, perhaps St. Ansano. 1500.


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