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Book review: “Luca and Andrea della Robbia” (Masters in Art)

A century ago, Masters in Art was a series of monthly monographs offered for the annual subscription price of $1.50. Single copies were 15 cents.

The Lucca and Andrea della Robbia issue that I have was published in September, 1901. My copy, originally part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art Library, is hardbound. I’m not sure if this was done by the library or if that’s how these monographs were produced and delivered.

Della Robbia---combo

This issue, which is probably representative of the series, is made up of 10 plates of photographs of the works of Luca della Robbia and his nephew Andrea, followed by 20 pages of text. That text is divided into three sections: biographies of the two men, discussions of their art and detailed commentaries on the works displayed in the 10 plates.

All of the text in these sections draws on earlier commentaries. For example, the section on the art of the della Robbias includes excerpts from articles by writers identified as Allan Marquard; Cavalucci and Molinier; the editors of Vasari’s Lives; Mrs. Oliphant; Marcel Reymond; and Walter Pater. These excerpts themselves include quotations from various other experts as well.

“Embodied dreams”

Luca and Andrea della Robbia and their workshops are known for a particularly beautiful and delicate type of glazed terra cotta. These works form a middle ground between painting and sculpture. They are usually distinguished by vibrant whites contrasting with a few strong colors, mainly blue and yellow. The glaze permits them to be displayed outside, such as over entranceways.

Some remarks on Luca’s work:
• Mrs. (Margaret) Oliphant, a Scottish novelist, describes Luca’s works as “embodied dreams.”
• Marcel Reymond writes that “no other artist ever so strictly limited himself to the depiction of beautiful ideas in beautiful human forms.”
• The editors of Vasari’s Lives quote Pater, an English art critic, as saying that Luca’s work is “as if a piece of the blue sky had fallen down into the streets of Florence.”
• That, apparently, was a paraphrase since Pater’s own essay puts it this way — that Luca’s work is “like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches.”

Like St. Francis of Assisi

Marcel Reymond on Andrea’s art:

We may say, by way of summary, that Andrea’s was such a soul as was that of St. Francis of Assisi, with all its ardent sensibility, its asceticism, its despite of life, and its upward yearning toward the love of God, but tender and impressionable as it was, this soul was equally fitted to express the ecstasy of celestial love and the griefs and the sufferings of human life.

Delightfully alive

I came to the della Robbias in 1996 when I was in the hospital for what turned out to be minor surgery. I brought along two art books. One was about the works of Tintoretto, and the other was Della Robbia by Fiamma Domestici.

I had known little or nothing about the della Robbias, but, ever since reading Domestici’s book, I’ve been a fan.

"Della Riobbia" by Fiamma Domestici

“Della Riobbia” by Fiamma Domestici

As you can see from the cover of that book, the work of the uncle and nephew lends itself to color photography.

By contrast, the Masters in Art monograph provides images in a rich and creamy black and white. It is a measure of the artistry of the della Robbias that, even in these duotone images, the figures and scenes are delightfully alive.

"Madonna and child with angels" by Luca della Robbia

“Madonna and child with angels” by Luca della Robbia

"The meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic" by Andrea della Robbia

“The meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic” by Andrea della Robbia

Their best work

As it happened, I read the Masters in Art monograph prior to and after undergoing surgery this month to replace my left knee.

As you might expect, given the physical strain and the various medications I’ve been taking, my focus on the book wasn’t as sharp as it might have been. Also, the nature of the book as a collection of excerpts from other places gives a scattershot look at the subject.

Still, there was much in this monograph to give me insight and context about these two great artists.

And I was gladdened to see that much of their best work is on display in Florence — where I am expecting to vacation in the next year or two. Delightful.

Patrick T. Reardon

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