- Luca Della Robbia
- Florence, circa 1400 -1482
- sculptor, architect
- Biographical information:
Born in Florence in 1399 or 1400, Luca was the son of Simone di Marco della Robbia, who with his family ran a flourishing business in the wool trade. The surname ‘della Robbia’ probably derived from the crimson colour made from the root of the plant Rubia tinctorum (madder) used to dye the cloth.
On 21 March 1427 Luca and his elder brothers enrolled in the Arte della Lana (Wool Guild). He was twenty-seven at the time and lived with his parents and family in a house in Via Sant’Egidio.
After a period of apprenticeship as a sculptor (possibly with Nanni di Banco or Lorenzo Ghiberti), on 1 September 1432 Luca enrolled in the Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname (Guild of Stonemasons and Carpenters). In this same year he received his first important commission: the Cantoria for the Duomo (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo). In this masterpiece, characterised by balanced correspondences and harmonious rhythms, Luca revealed a marked interest in classical art, which he may possibly have studied on the occasion of a sojourn in Rome around 1420. The work was placed opposite Donatello’s Cantoria, rendered in a different style, of a more dynamic and dramatic spirit.
In the preface to the vernacular edition of the De Pictura, Leon Battista Alberti cites Luca among the five principal artists in Florence, alongside Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Ghiberti and Donatello, the creators of the Renaissance style.
Between 1437 and 38 Luca sculpted the five hexagonal stone relief panels portraying the Liberal Arts, to complete the series on Giotto’s Campanile, where the artist reveals the influence of Jacopo della Quercia and Donatello. Between 1446 and 49, with the collaboration of Michelozzo and Maso di Bartolomeo, he made the large bronze door for the northern sacristy in the Duomo.
An expert in marble, bronze and terracotta, Luca invented a new glazing technique which he applied to the clay reliefs to give them colour and shine and also to protect the surface.
The first documented work made by Luca in glazed terracotta is the tabernacle for the chapel of San Luca in Sant’Egidio, commissioned in 1441 (now in the Collegiate church of Peretola), where the new plastic technique is combined with marble. Around 1445 he made an in-the-round sculpture of the Annunciation for San Giovanni Fuoricivitas in Pistoia.
The artist went on to perfect this technique in works executed in the characteristic colours: blue for the background, white for the figures, and yellow and green for the festoons of the frame. Luca’s glazed terracotta was greatly appreciated by his friend Filippo Brunelleschi; as the master builder or capomastro of the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Brunelleschi ordered important commissions for the Florentine cathedral, such as the relief lunettes of the Resurrection and the Ascension set above the doors of the sacristies. Moreover, Luca also executed the medallions with Apostles for the interior of the Pazzi chapel, which were joined by the four roundels with the Evangelists probably executed by Brunelleschi himself, who was also responsible for the architecture of the chapel.
Luca rapidly became one of the most successful artists of the fifteenth century. He designed the funeral monument for Bishop Federighi now in Santa Trinita (1454-57) and executed the ceiling of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato (1461-66). In the same years Luca also made the coffered ceiling of the studiolo of Piero de’ Medici, now dismantled: the white and blue roundels showing the labours of the months of the year are now conserved in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Many examples of the Madonna and Child reliefs destined for private devotion are on display at the Bargello Museum in Florence. In these compositions, Luca reveals a great communicative capacity expressed in simple, serene and harmonious compositions. When Luca died in 1482, his nephew Andrea and other members of the family continued the activity of the workshop for several decades.
The glazed terracotta technique enjoyed extraordinary popularity, since it combined aesthetic attraction, strength, resistance and low costs. The demand was so great that the production became an exclusive prerogative of the Della Robbia family, which jealously guarded the secret up to the early years of the following century. The commissioners were extremely varied: not only the wealthy merchant and banking families of the city, but also charitable institutions, confraternities, religious orders (the Franciscans in particular) and even ordinary people.
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