Thursday 24 October 2019

Pieces of the Sky

A grimly oppressive, rainy day, and I'm still suffering from a tenacious and very tiresome chest cough. What better occasion to let in a breath of Tuscan air and a ray of Tuscan light? As Walter Pater wrote of the work of the Florentine della Robbia family, 'I suppose nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of blue and white earthenware'. (Not only blue and white; the frames and details are often vividly colourful.) They are, continues Pater, 'like fragments of the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches'.
 Andrea Della Robbia, perhaps the most talented of the whole clan, was born on this day in 1435. His uncle, Luca, had invented a new kind of glazed terracotta (terra invetriata) that proved amazingly versatile and durable, and the perfect medium for a new kind of colourful, delicately modelled ceramic artworks, for display both inside and outside the great Renaissance buildings of Florence. Among Andrea's most famous works are the medallions of the infant Jesus, no two alike, that adorn the colonnade of the foundling hospital in Florence –

where there is also a lovely Annunciation over the door:

Andrea della Robbia also made exquisitely beautiful portrait busts, both in relief –

and free-standing –

Ruskin owned a superb relief panel by Andrea, The Adoration of the Child (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

As Della Robbia work came back into fashion in the 19th century, Ruskin wrote of Luca that '[He] is brightly Tuscan, with the dignity of a Greek; he has English simplicity, French grace, Italian devotion – and is, I think, delightful to the truest lovers of art in all nations and all ranks.' And the same could undoubtedly be said of his brilliant nephew, Andrea.

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