Della Robbia: Technical Innovation and Creative Genius

Italian Ceramics - Cappuccini Tondo by Luca della Robbia (1475-80), Bargello Museum, Florence - Photo Credits: www.scultura-italiana.comAccording to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the famous biographer of Renaissance painters, sculptors and architects, Luca della Robbia’s technique was so revolutionary that he’d be praised for it for many centuries to come. He explained how it was not such a hard work to make a clay sculpture and the only reason why clay had not been used much so far was that it could not be preserved over time. Luca, after many experiments, managed to invent a special mixture of minerals. This glaze, used to coat the sculptures before the firing in a suitable kiln, would make them almost eternal.

Such praise for Della Robbia’s invention was not wasted: his technique was a fundamental innovation in the artistic production of the Renaissance. A great mix of creativity, genius, research, study, technical skills and obstinacy.

The success of Della Robbia’s tin glazed sculptures was huge and for more than a century first Luca, then his offspring saw their family business grow. Their artworks added a precious touch to monasteries, churches and noble dwellings in central Italy, Sicily, Spain, France, England and Portugal.

There was much talk about Luca’s secret formula. The story goes that a maid working for Della Robbia stole the “magic recipe” and gave it to Benedetto Buglioni, a direct competitor in the art of making glazed ceramic works and a very good artist. The last descendant of Buglioni’s family hid the formula in the head of a Madonna sculpture, which eventually was destroyed thus the formula was lost forever.

It’s hard to say if a secret formula ever existed. Some scholars argue that Luca simply revived a technique that was well known to Muslim potters and to Hispanic Moresque artists, and applied it to sculpted terracotta, seeking inspiration from the colorful architectural elements of early Roman and Middle Eastern ancient art.

The question is: does it really matter?

There is no doubt that Luca Della Robbia was a great artist. His technique, combined with his unique creative instinct, allowed him to make some monumental masterpieces and won him a place in the short list of the most important Italian Renaissance Artists.

The making of a sculpture was a painstaking work, indeed.
First the clay had to be modeled by the artist into a sculpture. The result was either a unique piece or more frequently, was used to make a mold.

If the sculpture was meant to be a unique piece, it had to be emptied from the Italian Ceramics - Dovizia by Giovanni della Robbia (late 15th–early 16th century) - Photo credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Artbottom to prevent breaks or cracks during the firing.
For the same reason large sized works needed to be divided into smaller pieces. A copper thread was used to make cuts in the less visible parts of the works, such as along the pleats of the garments or the profiles.
After the firing the parts were assembled again, either during the walling up or by means of wooden hinges.

When fully dry, the pieces were fired at a temperature ranging from the 1380°F to the 1750°F.

Mixing the glazes was a very delicate task. It required skill and knowledge. The base was made of lead, tin, silica and alkaline earth. Metal oxides were added as needed to color the base.

After the first firing the works were artfully painted and prepared for the second and final firing, made at a lower temperature. It vitrified the glazes and fixed them on the clay, making it resistant to any type of weather condition for several centuries.

Luca Della Robbia preferred to work with white glaze, fascinated by the pureness of the shape it delivered. Most of his descendants used colored glazes, opening the way – as well said by Leonardo da Vinci – “to turning any great painting into a glazed terracotta”, meaning that they broke the rigid boundaries between Pottery, Painting and Sculpture to make ART.

One thought on “Della Robbia: Technical Innovation and Creative Genius

  1. Has there ever been made smalls – un-marked things like Della Robbia teacups with three-dimensional fruit?

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