ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA (FLORENCE 1435 - 1525) IN COLLABORATION WITH GIOVANNI DELLA ROBBIA (FLORENCE 1469 - 1529/30) CIRCA 1485-1490 | MADONNA AND CHILD WITH FOUR CHERUBS AND THE DOVE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE 'MADONNA DI BOCCA DI RIO' TYPE
Estimate: 180,000 - 220,000 USD
ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA (FLORENCE 1435 - 1525) IN COLLABORATION WITH
GIOVANNI DELLA ROBBIA (FLORENCE 1469 - 1529/30)
MADONNA AND CHILD WITH FOUR CHERUBS AND THE DOVE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, THE 'MADONNA DI BOCCA DI RIO' TYPE
glazed terracotta, with gilt highlights
22 ¼ by 17 ½ in.; 56.5 by 44.5 cm.
This elegant little Marian altarpiece is a quintessential example of the works that Andrea della Robbia produced for domestic devotion. The Madonna is portrayed with pleasing, youthful features and a gentle gaze; she is seated on a faldstool, whose armrest terminating in a volute is visible, wearing simple pure white garments that emphasize her chastity. She tenderly supports the Child Jesus with her right hand, beneath the curious and amused eyes of four lively cherubim who stand out against the cerulean background, streaked with fluffy little clouds. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends from above, in an allusion to the virginal conception of Christ. The Child, embracing His mother, arches His spine and stands proudly with one foot on her wrist, displaying the chubby softness of his naked body, manifestation of ‘the Word made flesh’. Mary lightly cradles His other foot, which she holds between two fingers, open in a scissor shape – a graceful, touching iconographic invention that could perhaps be interpreted as prefiguring Christ’s Passion, a recurrent theme in Marian images.
The image is framed by a fine classical egg-and-dart molding, integral to the relief, while the pure white glazing of the figures is enlivened with touches of manganese to define the irises of the eyes, the eyelashes and the hatching of the eyebrows. The glaze is also enhanced with extensive mordant gilding – in very good condition as compared with most other similar objects – which gives prominence and a gleaming metallic texture to the haloes and the frame’s moldings; highlights the hair, the cherubim’s wings and the dove’s plumage; traces fine sunbeams between the clouds in the sky; embellishes the Virgin’s garments with elaborate embroidery, still visible along the borders of her mantle, tunic and veil; and decorates the carving of the armrest.
It is worth noting how much can be deduced from studying the rear of the relief, which reveals a technique that is entirely consistent with the best practices of the Della Robbia workshop1: the use of a very adhesive, compact clay in a pale ochre color, with thick areas hollowed out with metal loop tools in those parts where the relief is deepest, evidenced by the long vertical furrows that often appear on objects created by the Della Robbia workshop. Other significant factors include some areas of damage, an original repair and other signs of the object’s age; these are useful for confirming the authenticity of the work, which has also been substantiated by a thermoluminescence test carried out by the TecnArt laboratory in Turin on 2 July 2019, giving a dose of 3.4+/-0.5 Gy, compatible with a date in the second half of the fifteenth century. The relief has an original horizontal fracture that runs beneath the chins of the Virgin and Child (no longer visible on the surface thanks to the meticulous restoration carried out by the Studio d’Ardiglione in Florence). This was a product of the first biscuit firing and the fracture was stabilized during the original glazing process, when it was joined together with the same white enamel glaze that was used for the figures and additionally secured with at least six wire staples – a technique that is also found on other Della Robbia pieces. Finally, the object was reinforced with two metal clamps, now very rusted, and the rear was rendered with a cement mortar. In terms of the object’s history, it is also interesting to note the two holes drilled through the top of the relief, above the dove, at some point after the object had been glazed: these would have served to hang the image from a cord, suggesting that it was re-used in a more modest location.
The present work, unknown despite the vast size of the Della Robbia bibliography, can be associated with a type that is familiar to scholars from other versions (eight have been identified). Although these occur, as we shall see, with several distinct variations – above all in Mary’s garments, the angelic heads and the frame – they have for some time been universally accepted as being attributable to Andrea della Robbia.2 The type takes its name from an example that is still much venerated, in the sanctuary of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie in Bocca di Rio near Baragazza (Castiglion dei Pepoli), the second most important sanctuary in the Bologna diocese. According to local sources, the Madonna of Bocca di Rio was sent in 1505 by sister Brigida, prioress of the monastery of Santa Caterina da Siena in Prato, to commemorate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin in that inaccessible spot in the Apennines, which she had witnessed (as Cornelia Vangelisti) on 16 July 1480.3 It must be made clear at this point that while this, the above mentioned relief, is certainly the best-known version of this popular model, as is attested by the many later reproductions in print and in majolica 4 it does not appear to be the oldest, partly because it differs from all the others (including the present relief) in that the Child’s nakedness is covered with a cloth: unless this is a later addition, it is a variation that is incompatible with Andrea’s practices and rather rare in the iconography of the time.
Andrea was the nephew, collaborator and heir of the great Luca della Robbia, who was responsible for the ‘invention’ of glazed sculpture, and was himself one of the Renaissance’s most important practitioners of terracotta modelling – he was so described as early as 1504 by Pomponio Gaurico in his De Sculptura.5 In this beautiful composition, possibly adopted from the early 1480s onwards, Andrea’s art is easily recognizable in its domestic feel, its appealing naturalism and the joyous angelic choir, as well as in the mastery of technique and in certain formal and compositional solutions that reappear in other contemporary devotional typologies by the master that also exist in several versions. For example, the image of the seated Virgin in three-quarter view, with her parallel legs foreshortened in the foreground and her elbow resting on the volute of a faldstool’s armrest, as well as the swaying stance of the Child, recur identically in Andrea’s Marian reliefs from the beginning of the 1470s, such as the charming Madonna and Child clasping a small bird in the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence6 and the famous ‘Madonna of the Architects’, made in 1475 for the guild of master stonemasons and wood-carvers, now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello7. Meanwhile, two other contemporary typologies also feature Mary’s unusual gesture, playing with her son’s little foot with two straight fingers (the index and middle). Sometimes, as in the present case, the fingers are open like a pair of scissors (Madonna and Child Blessing, the type known as the ‘Liechtenstein Madonna’8, also present in the Trinity predella now in Arezzo cathedral, with a documented date of 1485), while in other examples the fingers are joined together, stroking the Child’s ankle (Madonna and Child Embracing, the type known as the ‘Bargello Madonna’9, also present in the predella of the Pietà in Santa Maria degli Angeli in La Verna, datable to around 1490).
The model for the Madonna di Bocca di Rio and the present relief was probably made by Andrea della Robbia around 1480 and perhaps borrowed some elements – such as the foot of the Child placed on his mother’s wrist and the belt tied like a sash – from the marble Madonna by Benedetto da Maiano now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, a work of the artist’s youth datable to the early 1470s.10 The model was used by Andrea, and sometimes by his closest collaborators, for small arched altarpieces, as in the present case and three other known examples (private collection, formerly London, Sotheby’s, 2017, and Venice, Semenzato, 2004 ; Hartford, Wadsworth Athenaeum, formerly New York, J.P. Morgan ; private collection, formerly Bergamo, Galleria Lorenzelli, and Florence, S. Bardini ),11 as well as for tondi: four different versions of this form exist, all framed with wreaths, the best-known of which is now in the Pinacoteca Comunale in Città di Castello . The other three are in Florence, Oratorio di San Martino dei Buonomini ; a private collection, formerly Florence, Villa Vittoria, A. Contini Bonacossi ; and Carmignano, Villa Contini Bonacossi di Capezzana).12
As in the present example, in all the other altarpieces the Virgin is seated on a faldstool, wears a belt tied with an elaborate knot, and is attended by four cherubim surrounding the dove of the Holy Spirit, with stylistic elements that are consistent with Andrea’s art between the 1480s and 1490s. In the tondi, which are all framed with different types of wreath, Mary’s garment lacks the tied sash and falls in fuller, stiffer folds, as is clearly visible in the way her mantle drapes over her left arm. This suggests that the model was revived between the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Other differences are the omission of the arm of the faldstool and the presence of six angelic heads in the background (with two exceptions: the example in a private collection, originally Contini Bonacossi collection, where the cherubim are reduced to three; and the Capezzana tondo, which has no cherubim and in which the tied sash and the faldstool reappear.)
These differences support the view that the altarpieces were for the most part produced earlier than the tondi, and that the prototype was mostly reproduced by casting from the same mold – as the identical dimensions of the images confirm13 _using a technique that was widely used in Florentine terracotta modelling during the fifteenth century, including for Della Robbia’s production of devotional images.14 Direct modelling would then have been used to make revisions, alterations and adjustments, some of which could be quite substantial, as in the case of the Hartford example, in which the different arrangement of the veil and the Virgin’s long hair point to a later date, around 1490. It is probable that in the beginning, and occasionally later, such refinements were carried out by Andrea della Robbia himself, as suggested by the sensitive and lively modelling of the two figures and the angelic heads that can be seen in some of the altarpieces, for example the Bocca di Rio version and the present relief itself, as well as in the later Città di Castello tondo. Later he would have delegated the task to his five sons – all employed in the busy workshop in Via Guelfa – or to other assistants, as is attested by the less distinguished and more cursory work on the altarpiece from the Stefano Bardini collection and the two tondi that once belonged to Alessandro Contini Bonacossi.
It is not easy to establish a complete genealogy for the various examples of this popular type: for the most part, there are minimal variations to be found in the decoration of the armrest, the carving of the plumage, the detail of the faces and the arrangement of the drapery. It is nevertheless possible to confirm that the present altarpiece can be ranked among the best and oldest examples, whose production we believe to be attributable to Andrea, who would without doubt have been responsible for the final touches, delegating the more routine aspects of the execution to his assistants – including the shaping of the mold, the modelling of the frame and the glazing. In this case, such contributions seem likely to have been made by Andrea’s son Giovanni, who is known to have been working alongside his father from 1487.15 He was the most enterprising and original of the sons, with an instinct for rich decoration, as suggested by the greater detail in the molding, the dotted black eyes – with no distinction between the irises and the pupils – the hatching of the eyebrows and the intense, translucent hues of the enamel glaze.
Giancarlo Gentilini, Florence, 14 October 2019
Sold with a copy of a Thermoluminescence test conducted on 27 June 2019 from Technologia e ricerca per l'arte, Turin, indicating that the results of the test are consistent with the dating of the relief to the second half of the 15th century.
For footnotes and related literature, please refer to online catalogue.