This beautiful relief with the Adoration of the Christ Child represents a high point among the oeuvre of Benedetto and Santi Buglioni, artistic competitors to the Della Robbia family.
Depicting not only the Holy Family in adoration but also, in the background, the Annunciation to the Shepherds and their journey to the stable, the relief combines familial intimacy with narrative ambition. Its use of perspective set within a simple, almost monochrome, colour scheme serves to clarify the narrative, creating an effective communication with the viewer. The tenderness of the central scene, the sweetness of the Virgin’s features, and the Child’s gesture of placing His index finger on His lips, would have appealed to the milieu of popular and domestic devotion that housed the Buglioni workshop’s clientele.
The subject of the Adoration was frequently represented in glazed terracotta by the Della Robbia family, yet arguably never with the same vivid realism that characterises the present work. Benedetto Buglioni’s workshop created largely original compositions, drawing from contemporary Florentine masters in sculpture and painting such as Bernardo Rossellino, Benedetto da Maiano, and Domenico Ghirlandaio (see Gentilini, op. cit.). Buglioni’s authorship of the present roundel may be argued based on its close relation to two other versions of the subject from his workshop, one in Santa Maria Della Grazie in Stia, and the other, with an almost identical composition, in the Museo del Bargello, Florence.
Benedetto Buglioni was the son of a sculptor and probably the pupil of Andrea Verrocchio. As an assistant to Andrea della Robbia, he learned the secrets to making glazed terracotta sculpture, developed by Andrea's uncle Luca in the early 1440s. In the 1480s, Buglioni became the Della Robbia family's direct competitor in Tuscany.
The detail and vivacity of the modelling of the present relief, as seen in the elaborate cityscape and precise anatomy of the figures, indicate the hand of Santi Buglioni, Benedetto’s nephew and successor. Santi was the last practitioner of the art of glazed terracotta and enjoyed a distinguished career of his own. Perhaps his best known work today is the frieze on the loggia of the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia, in which he manifested his talent as a portraitist (Marquand, op. cit., no. 190). In the present work, this talent is evident in the highly naturalistic and expressive face of Joseph, whose pious introspection would have provided an exemplar for the devotional viewer.
A. Marquand, Benedetto and Santi Buglioni, New York, 1972