The first piece you see as you enter the stunning Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence at the MFA isn’t just a taste of the kind of art that the Della Robbias electrified Florence with during the 15th century, but rather a massive, nearly overwhelming example of what made the family the rock stars of Renaissance sculpture.
The piece is Resurrection of Christ, a vibrant, 11-foot-wide relief by Giovanni della Robbia consisting of 46 separate pieces. (Fitting, since the exhibition—the first of its kind in the US—is also made up of 46 different pieces.) The piece was most likely commissioned by Niccolò Antinori in the early 16th century and for many years hung at the Tuscan villa of the Antinori family—still in the wine business today—until the late 1800s when the piece was sold. So a part of the fabric of the Antinori family—now in its 26th generation—is this piece that they have generously supported in its year-long conservation. “It’s very important to us,” Alessia Antinori said.
Antinori, youngest daughter of patriarch Piero Antinori, was in Boston to celebrate the exhibition and the unveiling of the restored Resurrection. She beams with pride as she discusses her family’s link with the Della Robbias and their support of the restoration. “It’s an amazing piece,” she told me. “It’s really an example of the Renaissance period in Florence, which was a unique period. It never happened again.”
The Della Robbias weren’t merely expert sculptors; they were pioneers. In the 15th century, Luca della Robbia invented a new technique for glazing terra cotta. (This terra cotta was made from clay from the banks of the Arno River.) This process resulted in vibrant, fadeless colors, soulful whites, and a high-gloss shine. The family’s secret was closely guarded but passed down, most significantly to Luca’s nephew Andrea and Andrea’s son, Giovanni (who created the Resurrection). Important works by all three are featured in the exhibition, which has been stunningly and lovingly curated by Marietta Cambareri.
Andrea della Robbia’s Prudence, a roundel on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has also recently undergone conservation, and it’s almost impossible to look away. It is fascinating to see how a new order for the garland—juicy, ripe lemons; pinecones; and purple grapes—has been discovered.
The soul of the exhibition is undoubtedly Luca della Robbia’s The Visitation, a staggering work showing Mary and her cousin, the elderly Elizabeth, who have both just learned that they are with child. (This is a big deal because Mary, of course, is a virgin, and Elizabeth is long past her prime.) This represents the first manifestation of Christ on Earth, and the contrast between Elizabeth’s shriveled, labored face and Mary’s long neck and pure face is almost divine itself. The Visitation is shown in most art history textbooks, yet this marks the very first time that it is being shown in the United States. (Amazingly, the piece is on loan from the Church of San Giovanni Fuircivitas, Pistoia.)
The Della Robbia technique of sculpting remained all the rage for about a century before it passed out of favor. Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence is a stunning snapshot of the time, a period of unparalleled artistic and intellectual nirvana. The exhibition is steeped in the richness of the generations, both of the Della Robbias and the Antinoris, which is really the beating heart of this admirable, alluring show.
DELLA ROBBIA: SCULPTING WITH COLOR IN RENAISSANCE FLORENCE. THROUGH 12.4 AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. MFA.ORG