Exploring Florence's Terracotta Masterpieces

by Ella Nowicki

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The joyful cooked earth of Renaissance Florence is a pure landscape, matching the city's warm sky, red roofs, and yellow light. Produced largely by three generations of Florence’s famous Della Robbia family, terracotta sculptures still adorn the city’s chapels and palazzi. The sculptures’ scenes are rooted in a unique moment and place: Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in a fifteenth-century Tuscan garden, and a life-size annunciation feels like a gentle conversation. Made from mud from the Arno River, their earthy landscapes and lifelike characters are fully and freely Tuscan.

Tuscany has been home to terracotta for over one thousand years, from ancient Etruscan tombs to modern tourist shops near the Ponte Vecchio. At the dawn of the Renaissance, Florence burst with churches, chapels, palaces, and tabernacles, each one needing to be decorated. Luca Della Robbia jumped in on the ground floor of the terracotta revival in the early 1400s by devising kiln-fired tin glazes which kept water out and made terracotta the perfect medium for weathering heatwaves, pigeons, and rainy winters. Luca grew up steeped in Florentine arts, training as a goldsmith and working with architect Filippo Brunelleschi as a young man. He soon established an immensely successful workshop on the outskirts of Florence. But he never had children, and he decided to impart his knowledge on his nephew Andrea, who took over the operation in 1482 and exponentially increased the workshop’s efficiency. Andrea seemed to know everybody who was anybody in Florence’s art scene; he allegedly carried Donatello to his grave and talked with Vasari as a boy. Upon his death, the family business passed to his virtuosic son Giovanni. Across all three generations, almost every Della Robbia sculpture boasts a rich blue sky and a striking decorative border of leaves and lemons. It’s iconically Italian, reminiscent of orange trees in public streets in Rome to orange marmalade ice cream at the gelateria La Strega Nocciola.

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I first encountered the Della Robbias in the Bargello, a stony museum that was at different times a police station, the Grand Duke's gallows, and the first prison in Europe to abandon the death penalty. Battlements coexist with delicate mullioned windows on the exterior. Iron rings stud the walls at street level, used for tethering horses (our tour guide called them the equivalent of a parking lot). The gallery was an unexpected onslaught of color. It was the third-generation Giovanni Della Robbia who struck me. Colors became most vibrant under Giovanni, with blue skies that are best described by the Italian azzurro, shadowy vegetation, and sunlit fruit. Even in a crucifixion, bright yellow and electric blue swirl in turbulence, though surrounded by a cheerful lemon border. The sculpted lemons, quinces, figs, and grapes were both ornaments and Christian symbols. They fit best with Giovanni's Nativity, a blindingly colorful array of plants, farm animals, and the holy family. Every detail, from shepherds in the background to a group of tiny rabbits, rewards careful contemplation. It was a vision of a Tuscan farm transplanted to Jerusalem.

Despite its trademark Florentine masonry, the Museo Bargello seems a strange home for art created for a devotional setting. Fortunately, staring down the Bargello from across the street is the Badia Fiorentina, the convent where the first scene of Dan Brown’s Inferno was filmed (and where Dante first saw Beatrice). A semicircular lunette above the door holds a glistening white madonna and child with the characteristic citrus border. It was commissioned from Benedetto Buglioni, a rival terracotta producer, and it remains in its intended setting. The holy family guards the convent’s entrance but also welcomes, gazing down at passersby with an intimacy unique to the Renaissance. This work must be seen from the cobblestone street to understand the warmth and protection expressed by the Badia Fiorentina. Nuns still sell honey, jam, and cookies at a shop off of the cloisters and their cozy church is free to enter: the warm welcome communicated by terracotta continues today.

Though most Della Robbia sculptures reside in chapels and family homes in the city center, it was the countryside that helped me experience them. On our second to last day in Florence, my family rented a car to take us to the walled cities Volterra and San Gimignano. The cab met us on a street in view of the Palazzo Vecchio and our smiling driver Tiziano—aware that we had no idea what we were doing—immediately told us to ditch Volterra for Siena: too similar to San Gimignano, he said. Then he convinced us to have lunch at a friend’s vineyard in Chianti Classico. It was Casa Emma, a complex of stone houses thirty minutes from Siena where the octogenarian founders still live. Olive trees lined the driveway and we saw sweeping lines of grape vines, each one headed by a rose bush (according to Tiziano, it keeps the mosquitoes away). There were rows and rows of lemon trees as Tiziano pulled into the parking lot; Della Robbia yellow glaze seemed even brighter than the real lemons. Sheep and chickens milled around at the bottom of the hill below the vineyard as if they were in the background of Giovanni Della Robbia’s Nativity.

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These works are bound to Tuscany because they embody and reconstruct the landscape. Victorian critic Walter Pater said that “nothing brings the real air of a Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of pale blue and white earthenware…like fragments of the milky sky itself.” They were drawn from the Arno and made as an homage to the land, perfecting the Tuscan landscape. The lemon wreaths recreate the countryside and remind me of the spaghetti bolognese at that vineyard in Chianti. Figs and quinces replicate Florentine fruit vendors which remain in the city’s side streets, even after 500 years. For Renaissance Florentines, the colorful Della Robbia sculptures made everyday landscapes holy; for me, they remind of my time in Tuscany.

— Ella Nowicki is a high school student in Madison, Wisconsin. Her poetry appears in ShufPoetry and The Cadaverine and her literary criticism was recently recognized in the Keats-Shelley Young Romantics Prize. She loves art history and baking.

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