The account of the Evangelist tells us that when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary her virgin conception of the Son of God through the Holy Ghost, he also revealed that her cousin Elizabeth – although considered ‘old’ and ‘sterile’ – will also give birth to a child, ‘because nothing is impossible to God’. Thus, Mary ‘left in a hurry’ a few days later to visit her elderly relative, already six months pregnant, at her home on a hill near Nazareth. At the moment they met, ‘the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’. Elizabeth greets Mary saying ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’, words that will then form the incipit of the Hail Mary. The Virgin replies to the salute with a hymn to God, the Magnificat, still a significant part of the Catholic liturgy. Mary stayed with Elizabeth and her husband – the priest Zachariah – for three months, until the birth of their son, John the Baptist.
Among the most appreciated and important representations of the Visitation is a glazed terracotta group by Luca della Robbia, commissioned in 1445 for the altar of the Congrega della Visitazione (later known as the Compagnia di Sant’Elisabetta) in the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia (Pope-Hennessy, op.cit., pp. 40-41, 238-239, n. 10). The group – an evocative example of the masterful art of the della Robbia and a precursor of later representations in the early Renaissance – was the central focus of the 2016 Della Robbia exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and at the National Gallery, Washington (Cambareri, op.cit., p. 162, n. 20). The present work stands in dialogue with this group, as a standalone – even updated – version.
In both Visitations, Elizabeth is kneeling in front of the ‘blessed womb’ of the Virgin, who offers a kind, empathetic look to her faithful cousin, and – by proxy – to any other worshipper kneeling in front of the altar. The embrace is evocatively rendered, with the Virgin bending lovingly towards Elizabeth, her right hand resting on her shoulder in an invitation to stand alongside Mary, with the rest of the Christian flock. Typical iconography shows the two women standing in front of each other; thus, the present portrayal shows an exception to the norm, first proffered by Giotto in his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (1306), then re-adapted by Lorenzo Monaco in a few predellas (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, c.1410, and Santa Trinità, Florence, c.1420), and then again later by Domenico Ghirlandaio in his well-known panel painted in 1491 for the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Maddalena del Cestello, today in the Louvre, Paris. Indeed – according to Giancarlo Gentilini and Andrea De Marchi – the Visitation by Ghirlandaio was used as a model by Giovanni della Robbia for his grand, glazed polychrome terracotta altarpiece of the Visitation between Saint Sebastian and Rocco in the church of Santo Stefano a Lamporecchio (Gentilini 1992, op.cit., p. 325; De Marchi, op.cit., pp. 22-24) commissioned by the community after a horrific plague, as documented by a delibera dated 30 March 1524 (Marquand, op.cit., nos. 185-189, n. 192; Domestici, op.cit., pp. 262-264, 302-303, n. 45).
The group at the centre of the altarpiece – one of the most demanding works in the artist’s oeuvre, with its predella adorned by an epigraph of the start of the dialogue between the two – is in fact a faithfully rendered translation of the painting, with identical gestures, features and drapery, in addition to some more minor details such as the cross-shaped brooch fastened to the Virgin’s cape. Furthermore, the present unpublished relief is substantially similar to the Lamporecchio Visitation, both in its iconographical and technical elements, such as the vivid tone of the colours and the unglazed flesh. These similarities make its attribution to Giovanni della Robbia an obvious one. The most prolific, original and independent among the five sons of Andrea (Florence, 1435 – 1525), he inherited his father’s famed workshop and sometimes signed his works, even prior to his Andrea’s death (Marquand, op.cit.; Gentilini 1992, op.cit., pp. 279-328; Domestici, op.cit.).
The sharp facial features, the intricate drapery, the exuberant and imaginative decoration, the rich colour palette with a particular yellow for halos and garments, the absence of glaze in the flesh and painting ‘a freddo’ to overcome the difficulties in rendering pink and scarlet tones (as in Mary’s tunic in the present piece), are all characteristic of the work of Giovanni della Robbia. All characteristics being present in the same work makes this an important addition to the artist’s catalogue. He was highly skilled in recreating paintings in terracotta by the famous artists of his time, such as Verrocchio, Pollaiolo, Filippino Lippi, Jacopo del Sellaio, Albertinelli, Fra’ Bartolomeo and Ghirlandaio – as in this Visitation.
In regard to dating, it is certainly not distant from the Visitation in Lamporecchio, which was most probably commissioned in April, 1524 and possibly – as suggested by the aforementioned delibera – completed before the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was usually celebrated on July 2nd. The present work is thought to be slightly later, around 1525, as some details appear slightly simplified, such as the drapery around the Virgin’s feet and the cape worn by Elizabeth around her waist, which folds in a more schematic way. This tendency of the artist to simplify the shapes is characteristic of his late period and can be seen in a comparison between the three medallions executed for the porch of the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia (commissioned in March, 1526, and completed before 1527) Marquand, op.cit., pp. 195-201, n. 20; Masdea and Tesi, op.cit., pp. 30, 122, 123). One of the three represents a Visitation, in this case inspired by an older, more austere 1503 composition by Mariotto Albertinelli for San Michele in Palchetto, now in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, which is also the main inspiration for a glazed lunette with the same subject that Giovanni worked on for the same church, now in Museo Bandini, Fiesole (Gentilini 1993, op.cit., pp. 174-175, no. 55).
The present high-relief was originally comprised of four pieces expertly carved from behind, but is now in only two parts after a recent restoration. Each transition is seamless, and Giovanni has chosen to place them where the figures meet, at their wrists, as is typical of larger della Robbia sculptures. It was probably created to adhere to a flat surface – as with the Visitation in Lamporecchio – or even to a frescoed wall in a niche or a painted wooden tabernacle. One of these two options is made more plausible by the absence of any trace on the edges of the figures that would suggest they had been connected to other glazed surfaces; it seems this was a detached work. Furthermore, the figures stand on patches of grass, as opposed to the Lamporecchio piece where the figures stand on steps, integrated with the surrounding framework.
Alan Marquand, Giovanni della Robbia, Princeton, 1920, pp. 185-189, n. 192 and pp. 195-201, n. 20;
John Pope-Hennessy, Luca della Robbia, Oxford, 1980, pp. 40-41, 238-239, n. 10;
Giancarlo Gentilini, I Della Robbia. La scultura invetriata nel Rinascimento, Florence, 1992, p. 325 and pp. 279-328;
Giancarlo Gentilini, in Il Museo Bandini a Fiesole, M. Scudieri, eds., Florence, 1993, pp.174-175, no. 55;
Fiamma Domestici, I Della Robbia a Pistoia, Florence, 1993, pp. 262-264, 302-303, n. 45;
Andrea De Marchi, ‘Ancora che “l’arte nuova” della scultura invetriata’, in I Della Robbia, Florence, 1998, pp. 22-24;
Stefano Zuffi, Episodi e personaggi del Vangelo, Milan, 2002, pp. 62-65;
M.C. Masdea and V. Tesi, ‘Vaghe figure di terra cotta, esperimenti l’opere della misercordia’, in G. Capecchi, M.C. Masdea, V. Tesi, G. Tucci, eds., Avvicinatevi alla bellezza. Il fregio dello Spedale del Ceppo, Pistoia, 2015, pp. 30, 122-123;
Marietta Cambareri, Della Robbia. Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence, exhibition catalogue, Boston, 2016, p. 162, n. 20
This lot is sold with a copy of a Thermoluminescence Analysis Report from Oxford Authentication dated 11 October 2012 stating that a sample N112j96 (taken from the standing figure) was last fired between 300 and 600 years ago.
We are extremely grateful to Giancarlo Gentilini for cataloguing this lot
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