Sunday, June 4, 2017

Della Robbia at the National Gallery: Tender, Humble, and Devout

From the Sounds of St. Francis, 4 June, 2017
The terracotta statuary created by the Della Robbia family of Florence is instantly recognizable: white figures surrounded by vivid blue backgrounds, often wreathed by bright green leaves and fruit. But these statues don’t always get so much respect. Modern connoisseurs of high Renaissance art usually swoon over the Leonardos, Raphaels, and Michelangelos instead and galleries sometimes consign Della Robbia statues to the hallways or overstuffed “ojects d’arte” rooms.

In their own time, though, the Della Robbias (an uncle, a nephew and a grand-nephew) were highly regarded and received enormous numbers of commissions. In some ways, victims of their own success, the family developed a unique process for glazing terracotta, leaving behind vivid colors and a glassy sheen. Their impressive workshop method allowed extensive production for over a century. We tend to overlook their statues because there are so many of them, not just at world-class museums like the National Gallery, but in all sorts of private collections (including an impressive Madonna and Child that hung in the library of my former parish in Cooperstown). If you’ve been to Tuscany or Umbria you will know how cheap knock-offs of Della Robbia work abound in souvenir shops, cheapening one’s experience of beholding the real thing.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Color, an exhibition on view at the National Gallery (but only for a few more days—it closes on June 4) does a fine job of restoring the balance in our appreciation of these statues. The largest exhibition of Della Robbia statuary ever presented in North America, it gathers over 40 works from international collections, including some that have never be-fore left Italy. The exhibition reveals the versatility of the workshop, and the ingenious ways in which they pressed the limits of the terracotta form. Those with an interest in the technical side of art production will learn a great deal, and many of the pieces are simply stunning.

When Allison and I visited the exhibit earlier this week we were particularly taken with a dramatic lunette of the resurrected Christ, hung (as designed) over a main doorway. Christ stands in placid triumph over his broken tomb while the guarding soldiers collapse in dread. The careful attention to detail on the armor and shields of the soldiers is striking, as is the dynamism of the figures, which seem ready to burst from their elegant fruited wreathing. The wreathing itself seems to pulsate with energy—a frog is poised to jump from a branch of quinces, pomegranates burst open and flowers twine over all, as if nature itself awakens to rejoice in the Easter miracle.

A large and impressive statue of the Visitation created by Luca, the first of the Della Robbias is among the featured pieces. It is unusual in being free-standing, and its four sections fit together without pins. The figures are remarkably delicate, and the pure white glazed clay is much more life-like than stone would be. Mary and Elizabeth clasp each other in joy and affection, but unusually the aged Elizabeth is also kneeling before Mary, adoring the Redeemer already present within her.

These are, on the whole, quite tender works of art, especially for sculpture. Most of the works in this exhibition have religious subjects, and, for me, this tenderness is, the key to their devotional value. The Renaissance was, of course, a great time of artistic experimentation, and for many artists of the period, the technical bravura sometimes gets in the way of the religious meaning of the scenes they depict. We admire the mathematical precision of a Masaccio painting or the precise musculature of a Michelangelo sculpture. But they won’t often bring us to our knees. The subject could be a heroic saint or a decadent pagan and we would notice exactly the same features. The artists are more interested in showing off their skills than opening the door to a deeper appreciation of holy things.

It seems otherwise with these statues. Della Robbias were made for generations, and after a few years, few people never commissioned one for the sake of having a conversation piece on the wall. The Madonnas seem genuinely prayed over, the virtues contemplated. The resurrected Christ looks confident enough to evoke a bit of dread and trust in the believer who beholds Him. That tender-ness and devotional appeal is probably, in part, a function of the medium. But it also reflect the admirable humility of the craftsman, who was willing to point beyond the work of his own hands to mysteries of undoubted and eternal value.

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