THE GREAT TUSCAN SCULPTORS OF THE XV CENTURY III. Jacopo della Quercia and Luca della Robbia.
Contemporary to Verrocchio, Donatello and Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia (ca. 1374–20 October 1438) born in Quercia Grossa (now Quercegrossa) located in the vicinity of Siena, emerged with an artistic style that was in many ways stronger than Donatello’s and his school. Like many other artists of the time, Jacopo received his early training from his father, Piero d’Angelo, who was a woodcarver and goldsmith. Being a Sienese, della Quercia must have seen the pulpit in the cathedral of Siena by Nicola Pisano and Arnolfo di Cambio, and was probably influenced by it. In 1401 during his youth, he competed for the commission of the second door of the Florence baptistery, together with Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, but lost to the latter. His marble sculpture of the “Pomegranate Madonna” (Madonna dellaMelegrana) was sculpted in 1403 for the Ferrara cathedral, now is kept in the Museo della Cattedrale in Ferrara.
Jacopo also had worked on the beautiful sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto (1406), the second wife of Lucca’s ruler Paolo Guinigi, which is at the Lucca cathedral. The beautiful recumbent effigy of Ilaria who is richly dressed lays on top of the sarcophagus and, in the best Gothic fashion, a dog as symbol of conjugate fidelity, rests at her feet. An innovation though brought in by Jacopo was the inclusion of a frieze with putti holding a heavy garland and flanking the tomb, an element that clearly shows the classical influence of the Roman sarcophagi kept at the Camposanto Monumentale of Pisa. This figure seduces the viewer by its intermediate style between the Gothic and the Renaissance. From the first style, it takes the traditional recumbent posture and the fluid linearity of the folds of the garments; from the second it takes a classical attitude in the way that it makes us believe that this young woman, who died in 1405 two years after her wedding at the age of 26, is not dead, but asleep.
Meanwhile, in Siena, Jacopo was asked in 1406 to build a new fountain for the Piazza del Campo (the main square of Siena). This important commission reflects that della Quercia was already being recognized as one of Siena’s most prominent sculptors. The work on the Fonte Gaia was slow, due mostly to Jacopo’s accepting other commissions while working on the fountain. He started it in 1414, but by 1419 only the fountain was finished. The works of della Quercia for this particular fountain are only known today thanks to some fragments now kept in the Palazzo Pubblico (Siena’s Town Hall) and which served as models to carry out the modern reconstruction of this famous fountain. The panels that surround the fountain were carved in a workshop that Jacopo opened for this purpose next to the cathedral. Today this workshop is the Cathedral Museum. Della Quercia was also a versatile artist in woodcarving, one example is his Annunciation group from 1421 with the statues of the Virgin and Gabriel for the Collegiata in San Gimignano; these statues’ polychrome finishing was done by Martino di Bartolomeo.
In 1425, della Quercia began to work in the marble reliefs to decorate the central portal (Porta Magna) of Saint Petronius church in Bologna, which he left unfinished. This project kept him busy for a good part of the last 13 years of his life and today it is considered his masterwork. For this work, Jacopo divided the available space of the facade into squares, in which he developed the narrative of specific biblical themes including few figures; the same Michelangelo conceded that he was inspired by these reliefs to design his fresco with scenes of the Genesis and Creation for the Sistine Chapel. In fact, Jacopo della Quercia is considered to be a precursor of Michelangelo. Jacopo della Quercia died at Siena on 20 October 1438. In his final years he was awarded several honors by the Sienese: in 1435 he was knighted and given the important position of Operaio of the works of the cathedral.
Let’s now turn again from Siena to Florence. In what was left of the XVth century, the city would witness the raise of several other great masters of sculpture. If Verrocchio was Donatello’s heir as blacksmith, instead the one who continued and emphasized the artistic elegance of Donatello’s style was another Florentine friend of his and Ghiberti’s: Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482), the first in a family of artists who made famous their name mainly as master potters and as producers of statuary in tin-glazed terracotta*. Luca worked (and therefore trained) with Ghiberti on the famous doors of the Florence Baptistry. It is known that he was heavily influenced by Donatello, and in the 1420s worked for Filippo Brunelleschi to carve some sculptures for buildings he designed. However, Luca della Robbia’s first well-identified work is a sculpture in marble. This work was the Cantoria*(“Singing Gallery”) commissioned for the organ loft of the Florence Cathedral in 1431 and that was intended to be paired with that by Donatello. Luca completed this work in 1438 under the supervision of Brunelleschi, and in the process he developed his style: while the earliest carved panels are almost symmetric and lack movement, in later panels the movement of the figures becomes more visible and dynamic.
As Donatello did in his own Cantoria, Lucca represented the theme of singing children. In this work, della Robbia’s reliefs even surpassed those by Donatello for their spiritual insight into the feeling of music. There is less agitation in Luca’s reliefs; he was calmer and therefore he portrayed these scenes with more serene attitudes. A group of boys blow the trumpets, while others play happily. Then, on the side parapets, some older boys that seem more able to understand music, appear absorbed reading the spiritual songs: those boys in the front row hold the book with the music, those from behind look over their shoulders, some playing unconsciously with the hair curls of the younger boys, others follow the beat with their foot or hands. Never before in an artistic work in marble has the harmony of singing been reproduced more intensely; the children’s voices seem to resonate in prolonged harmonies as portrayed in their expressive mouths, some giving low notes, some others raising the tone according to the demands of the musical scale.
This work would suffice to immortalize Luca and to elevate him to the artistic height of Donatello; but, in addition, he carved several reliefs for the campanile, framed in regular hexagons like those made by Andrea Pisano. He also was in charge of finishing, in collaboration with Michelozzo, the large bronze doors for the Sacristy of the Cathedral, which Donatello had left unfinished, thus showing himself as a worthy follower of the great master. Another important work in marble by Luca (carved between 1454–1456) is the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of Fiesole, now placed in the church of Santa Trinita (Florence), with its magnificent rectangular frame of painted tiles.
Soon, della Robbia dedicated exclusively to the new art of reliefs on baked earth pottery with glazed enamels, of which there were few precedents in Tuscany. Luca’s art is notably for his colorful, tin-glazed terracotta statuary, a technique which he invented and passed on to his nephew Andrea della Robbia and great-nephews Giovanni della Robbia and Girolamo della Robbia. His earliest surviving freestanding sculpture is a white tin-glazed terracotta depicting the “Visitation” (ca. 1445, church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas, Pistoia). It is still not known how Luca della Robbia came to produce his first glazed ceramics. The import of glazed earthenware from Manises* (a town in Spain), which at that time influenced the ceramics of Faenza, could have been the vehicle. The technique, however, was known: the models, executed in clay, were enameled on fire with light colors, almost always the same: white or blue for the background, white also for skins and clothing. The borders and frames had flowers and fruits, pine branches, roses and wheat spikes, as they are usually seen during the summer on the windows of Florence’s neighboring towns. Luca achieved such high degree level of mastery in this medium that he was able to secure two major commissions for the Cathedral of Florence: the large reliefs of the Resurrection (1445) and the Ascension of Christ (1446). He also was responsible for the series of the Twelve Apostles (1443–1450) that decorate the Pazzi Chapel by Brunelleschi.
Della Robbia’s art was a popular art; his large workshop produced both cheaper works cast from molds and more expensive individually commissioned pieces. Many of the terracottas by della Robbia and his descendants still decorate many of Italy’s crossroads; some of the most beautiful pieces, sculpted by Luca himself, such as the Madonnas of the Via dell’Agnolo or the Madonna of San Pierino (today in the Bargello National Museum, in Florence) were until recently outdoors in the place where they originally were intended to be placed, and respected by everyone. Even so, quite a few of them still remain in situ. It is surprising to see that the fragile baked earth Madonnas by the great Luca are still intact after more than four centuries, without a strong sign of damage to their beautiful enameled figures. Because it is precisely in the first works by Luca della Robbia, that the Florentine artistic grace reached its peak: his Madonnas are delicate Virgins with fine hands and a soft head, angels adore them carrying vases full of flowers or flying around the queen of heaven, who has the slender forms of a young Tuscan girl. The color schemes, somewhat rural, seem to had been designed to highlight the finesse of gestures: those pastoral bouquets on the frames seem to be placed there to show a high contrast, used in a similar way by the ultra-refined Alexandrians who also loved bucolic themes. But in the work by Luca’s descendants, his nephew Andrea and his son Giovanni, who were somewhat inferior to the great master, the artistic effect was achieved mainly by the charm displayed by the high contrasts of the color scheme. The last works by Della Robbias made large polychrome altars completely glazed. Luca della Robbia died in Florence in February 1482 taking most of his secrets of tin-based glaze with him.
Cantoria: A balcony for singers. Specifically, the choir gallery in an Italian church.
Console: In architecture refers to a type of bracket or corbel, particularly one with a scroll-shaped profile: usually an ogee (S or inverted S curve) or double-ogee terminating in volutes (spirals) above and below. A console projects about one-half its height or less to support a window head, cornice, shelf, or sculpture. The difference between a console and other varieties of bracket has more to do with where it is used than its appearance.
Fleur-de-lis: (from French, fleur meaning “flower”, and lis meaning “lily”). A stylized lily that is used as a decorative design or symbol. Since France is a historically Catholic nation, the fleur-de-lis became a religious, political, dynastic, artistic, emblematic, and symbolic symbol, especially in French heraldry. The fleur-de-lis has been used by French royalty and throughout history to represent Catholic saints of France. Particularly, the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are depicted with a lily.
Manises ceramics: A special type of pottery produced in the municipality of Manises located in the province of Valencia, Spain. The Manises ceramics prevailed throughout Europe until the late 16th century, being known in many places as “work of Valencia” or “Mallorca”, because of the origin of the seafarers who traded with it. Manises pottery was also exported to France, Italy, and especially to Naples, where Alfonso the Magnanimous wanted to create a brilliant and luxurious court. The export was also extended to Sicily, Venice, Turkey, Cyprus, and even to Flanders and the Baltic countries. The palaces of all the courts of Europe were enriched with Manises ceramics. Many painters reproduced it in their paintings; it can be observed in the work of Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, and in the central panel of a triptych by Hugo Van der Goes.
Stemma: Italian for “Coat of arms”. A coat of arms is a heraldic visual design on a shield and forms the central element of the full heraldic achievement which in its whole consists of: shield, supporters, crest, and motto. A coat of arms is traditionally unique to an individual person, family, state, organization or corporation.
Tin-glazed terracotta: Earthenware covered in lead glaze with added tin oxide which is white, shiny and opaque; usually this provides a background for brightly painted decoration. It has been important in Islamic and European pottery. The pottery body is usually made of red or buff-colored earthenware and the white glaze imitated Chinese porcelain. The decoration on tin-glazed pottery is usually applied to the unfired glaze surface by brush with metallic oxides. The makers of Italian tin-glazed pottery from the late Renaissance blended oxides to produce detailed and realistic polychrome paintings. The earliest tin-glazed pottery appears to have been made in Iraq in the 9th century. From there it spread to Egypt, Persia and Spain before reaching Italy in the mid-15th century, during the early Renaissance, Holland in the 16th century and England, France and other European countries shortly after.