The Della Robbia School of Sculpture

AT last we have a volume1 on this most interesting field of study which should prove not only adequate for the wants of the intelligent general reader, but which is full of interest for the special student. The general reader will welcome the admirably selected illustrations and the clearly indicated characteristics by means of which he may distinguish the works of the three principal exponents of the school, Luca, Andrea, and Giovanni della Robbia. The products of this school, at the close of the fifteenth and early part of the sixteenth centuries, were so numerous that not merely the traveler in Italy but the visitor to such museums as the Bargello at Florence, the Berlin Museum, the Louvre, and the South Kensington is easily lost without a competent guide. Even the labels in our museums do not yet exhibit the benefits of rigorous modern criticism.

There are only two general treatises on the works of the Robbia school with which this volume may well be compared. One was written in 1884 by Cavallucci and Molinier, the other, in 1897 by Marcel Reymond. In addition to these, the writings of Dr. Bode of the Berlin Museum are of most value. Cavallucci’s volume was of importance for its publication of documents and its long list of the Robbia works. But Professor Cavallucci once confessed to the writer of this review that he felt at sea in the attribution of Robbia monuments, unless confronted with documentary evidence. Miss Crutwell not only enlarges his series of documents, but uses them with greater discrimination. Documents are not always a valuable guide to the actual handiwork of a monument, especially in the later history of the Robbia work when many hands were employed, although only the head of the bottega may have received the order or the remuneration.

Dr. Bode’s wide acquaintance with Italian art and his predilection for Robbia monuments have been the means not only of enriching the Berlin Museum, but in stimulating and guiding critical study. He has done much to supply the deficiency of Cavallucci’s work, and to render the observation of the monuments of essential importance. Dr. Bode’s interests, however, have centred chiefly on Luca della Robbia. The works of Andrea and of Giovanni did not appeal to him so strongly. Marcel Reymond’s charming little volume did much to bring Andrea della Robbia into clearer light, but Giovanni seems to be in his eyes a category under which may be classed all Robbia works not produced by Luca or Andrea. Miss Crutwell has done much to extricate Giovanni, and properly relegates to the atelier a host of works for which it is not yet possible to make more definite attributions. We see therefore the whole school more clearly analyzed than ever before.

Even in a brief review like this, we may be permitted to refer to some particular results reached in this volume. One of the most interesting of Luca della Robbia’s works in terra-cotta is the Tabernacle of the Holy Cross in the Collegiate church at Impruneta. Miss Crutwell has perfected our knowledge of this monument by the discovery that a crucifixion relief, in a side chapel of the same church, once formed part of this Tabernacle. The discovery has important bearings in judging of Luca’s style, since the relief has hitherto been assigned to a date several decades earlier. Her treatment of Luca’s Madonnas, viewed as an attempt to extricate Luca’s own personal handiwork, is certainly a praiseworthy effort, and ought to check the ascription of inferior work to this master. Nevertheless, when, as in the frieze of one of the Impruneta Tabernacles, we find two Madonnas of essentially the same type, though differing in quality, is she justified in ascribing the inferior Madonna to Andrea ? The question has a wide bearing, since there are a number of Madonnas which stand in similar relation to Luca’s own handiwork.

For Andrea della Robbia she has discovered a new document which shows that he made for the cathedral a wooden crucifix now unfortunately lost. In general, her appreciations of Andrea seem to us well founded, although occasionally we cannot follow her attributions. For example, the medallion of the Silk Weavers on the south side of Or San Michele we still believe to be by Luca, and the baptismal font at Santa Fiora we cannot relegate to Giovanni.

In regard to Giovanni della Robbia, she has certainly drawn attention to some stylistic peculiarities of value. But even after reading her admirable sketch, we cannot bring ourselves to believe that Giovanni was as variable a character as is here depicted. Striking as is the contrast between the Lavabo of Santa Maria Novella, in which he was certainly dominated by the influence of Andrea, and the Tabernacle of the Via Nazionale, where his own individuality is best exhibited, we may still recognize the same psychological and the same technical characteristics. But in the frieze representing the Seven Acts of Mercy, which decorates the loggia of the Ceppo Hospital at Pistoia, we fail to see the touch of the same hand. It is hardly to be expected that agreement will be reached on Robbia attributions, except in a limited number of important cases. Miss Crutwell’s attributions, however, deserve careful consideration, and she may be congratulated on having produced the best general treatise on the Robbia school of sculpture.

Allan Marquand.

  1. Luca and Andrea della Robbia and their Successors By MAUD CRUTWELL. Illustrated. London : J. M. Dent & Co.; New York : E. P. Dutton & Co. 1902.