Luca della Robbia 1400-1482

Luca della Robbia  was an Italian sculptor from Florence. Della Robbia is famous for his colorful, tin glazed terracotta statuary,  a technique which he invented and passed on to his nephew Andrea della Robbia.

Luca della Robbia, Potrait of a boy, 1445

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Though a leading sculptor in stone, he worked primarily in terracotta after developing his technique in the early 1440s. His large workshop produced both cheaper works cast from molds in multiple versions, and more expensive one-off individually modeled pieces.


Vasari, Gaurico, and several other early writers give contradictory accounts of Luca della Robbia’s youth, training, and early works. He was born in Florence, the son of a member of the Arte della Lana (wool-workers guild). He may have trained as a goldsmith under Leonardo di Ser Giovanni according to Vasari, before working with Ghiberti on the famous doors of the Florence Baptistry. He was heavily influenced by Donatello, and in the 1420s was used by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi for sculpture on his buildings. His important commission for the Cantoria (“Singing Gallery”; 1431–1438) of Florence Cathedral came before he joined the sculptor’s guild Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname (for workers in stone and wood) in 1432. According to Vasari, the Medici family were responsible for securing him the commission.

Luca della Robbia, Cantoria bas-relief, 1438

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Early works

Luca della Robbia, Peretola tabernacle, 1441

In the next 2 decades Luca executed important commissions in marble and bronze: a series of marble reliefs (1437) for the bell tower of the Cathedral of Florence; a marble and enameled terra-cotta tabernacle (1443), now in S. Maria in Peretola; bronze angels to enrich the Singing Gallery; and, in collaboration with Michelozzo, the large project of bronze doors for the Sacristy of the Cathedral. These doors were not finished until 1469; their reliance on a few figures placed in simple, orderly compositions against a flat ground contrasts sharply with the elaborate pictorial effects of Ghiberti’s more famous Baptistery doors.

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The masterpiece

Arguably the one of the most important existing works in marble by Luca (executed in 1454–1456) is the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of Fiesole, originally placed in the church of San Pancrazio, Florence, but removed to San Francesco di Paola on the Bellosguardo road outside the city in 1783. In 1898 it was again removed to the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. An effigy of the bishop in a restful pose lies on a sarcophagus sculptured with graceful reliefs of angels holding a wreath which contains the inscription. Above are three-quarter length figures of Christ between St John and the Virgin, of conventional type. The whole is surrounded by a rectangular frame formed of painted tiles. On each tile is painted, with enamel pigments, a bunch of flowers and fruit in brilliant realistic colors. Though the bunch of flowers on each is painted on one slab, the ground of each tile is formed of separate pieces, likely because the pigment of the ground required a different degree of heat in firing from that needed for the enamel painting of the center.

Luca della Robbia, Monument to the Bishop Benozzo Federighi, 1454

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Terra-cotta works

Della Robbia’s earliest surviving freestanding sculpture is the white tin-glazed terracotta Visitation in the church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas of Pistoia, dating to 1445. Although the date of della Robbia’s first work in colored glazed terra-cotta is not known, his demonstrated control of this medium secured him two major commissions for the duomo of Florence: the large reliefs of the Resurrection (also from 1445) and the Ascension of Christ (1446). The pliant medium of baked clay covered with a “slip” of vitrified lead and refined minerals permitted a lustrous, polished surface capable of reflecting light and color that was beautifully appropriate for architectural sculpture.

Luca della Robbia, Visitation, 1445

Working with assistants, including members of his own family, della Robbia produced a number of decorative reliefs and altarpieces until the end of his life.

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