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Searching for the della Robbia red clay

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There are a number of legends in Barga which are somewhat difficult to sort out the truth from the fact and fiction.

One or two of them have to do with one particular group of people  – the della Robbia family from Firenze.

Barga is quite a small city but it does have a large number of decorated terracotta works which are attributed to various members of the dynasty of these important pottery artists.

One of the legends is that della Robbia had a kiln here in the city where their precious art works were fired. There are documents which state that the kiln was situated in Fornacetta just outside the city but no real proof one way or the other has ever been found.

Presumably they would also have used locally dug clay for their terracotta pieces and in fact just above Fornacetta there is an area known for centuries as Terra Rossa – red earth – could this have been where Luca della Robbia or members of his family dug their red clay ?

Again no real proof either way even after a thorough search of the area this month drew a blank.

The recent landslides in this area after the appalling wet winter has brought to the surface a large band of grey bordering on blue clay down by the stream at Loppia but at Terra Rosa, no sign of the fine red clay that was the della Robbia trademark.

The second legend is about secret of the della Robbia technique which tradition says was hidden inside one of the heads of Jesus in one of the terracotta works.

In fact high up on the wall inside the main gate leading into Barga Vecchia is a circular glazed terracotta della Robbia (a late copy, by all accounts) featuring a Madonna and child with the head of the child completely destroyed by persons unknown at some point in the recent past.

In the Duomo there is another large unglazed terra-cotta with the Madonna as the centrepiece and once again the figure of the baby Jesus is completely destroyed and some very amateur restoration work attempting to cover up the missing figure and left arm of the Madonna

Could all of this just be coincidence? It could well be but stories keep circulating about della Robbia’s hidden secrets in other cities as well. The Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia is another example where faces and heads on the brightly coloured glazed terra-cotta freeze have also been broken as people go looking for the presumed “treasure”.

 

Here in Barga natural clay is once again being formed into figures but these will not be lasting centuries as they will never be fired in a kiln.

In fact the grey clay which came from just above the stream in the Loppia is being formed into a series of faces featuring old men.

They are a mash up of images already to be found in Barga in the Duomo, in one of two fountains and even ancient stone carvings in Barga Vecchia.

These faces are being placed in various places in Barga Vecchia.

 clay dug from the ground at Loppia Barga – one from the series of thirsty old men of Barga – music from the Aristodemo’s

Luca della Robbia

 

One of the innovations brought about by the Italian artistic Renaissance was that of the glazed terracotta sculptures created by the artistic talent and technical skill of Luca della Robbia.

In around 1442, the Florentine sculptor rediscovered, so to speak, glazed terracotta and made it into a form of high art that was acknowledged in his time as nova, utile et bellissima ( new, useful and very beautiful ) – Vasari 1878.

The workshop that he founded in Florence remained active under the della Robbia family for almost a century, first directed by Luca himself, then by his nephew Andrea and finally by Andrea’s sons Giovanni, Girolamo and Luca il giovane (the youth), until the family split because of the 1527 plague – Gentilini 1992

The della Robbia family wrote one of the most illustrious pages in the history of that vibrant artistic period. An incredible amount and variety of sculptures was produced in that workshop and sold all over Europe: monumental altarpieces, decorative architectural elements, small objects for private devotion, coats of arms, tombs, tiling, and so on, creating at that time a successful business and being today the basis of many remarkable museum collections. The pristine and distinctive style of Luca’s sculptures, which features white figures on a blue background, remains the distinctive sign of the best masterpieces of this art form, although with time the taste evolved towards polychrome, more elaborated and mannered ensembles, in particular with the third della Robbia generation.

Glazes are the most distinctive sign of the della Robbia production and have been investigated at length. Their composition is related to preparation recipes believed to have been kept secret for years until, apparently due to the betrayal by a della Robbia maid – Gentilini 1992; Gaborit and Bormand 2002, they were disclosed to Benedetto Buglioni who, from 1484, imitated the art, helped by his adopted son Santi, who continued the activity until 1576.

The object of Luca della Robbia was, by giving a vitreous surface to the clay model, to save the expense of cutting it in marble, or casting it in bronze. This process was the most successful ever invented to cheapen sculpture and make it in some respects even more durable, without an obvious loss of its finer properties. Costly monuments would never have been left intact in the localities in which we find the ware of Luca della Robbia. It is owing also to the low price paid for the bas-reliefs in terra-cotta that even poor village churches possess effigies of the Madonna and their patron saints in glazed enamel. Four centuries have not destroyed or even diminished the beauty of Luca della Robbia’s works. They have resisted time and weather, and are as perfect now as when they came out of the furnaces he built in the different localities for which they had been commissioned.

Carocci, in his book ” II Comune di Firenze,” writes that near Florence, at Calcina, there still exist traces of the furnace which tradition asserts that Luca della Robbia had expressly built when he baked the terracotta ornaments for the Church of Impruneta.

At Barga, in Garfagnana, the Church of the Fornacetta is said to have been raised on the spot of the Robbia furnaces.

Many have been the reasons given for the loss of the secret of the glazed enamel. In a letter by Signor Gambini of Pistoia to Professor Contrucci, in 1835, we find the following passage : ” Owing to experiments made by myself, I firmly believe that the principal cause for which the beautiful invetriata of the della Robbia’s fell in disuse, was the disappearance of a special kind of clay necessary to form certain parts of the Robbian ware.” Signor Gambini observes that the difference is especially evident in the blue background, which comes out in modern bas-reliefs less even and beautiful, while the white parts cannot be considered inferior to those of the Church of S. Francesco in Barga.

The numerous terra-cotta monuments at Barga have been much discussed. Local tradition proudly attributes them to Luca; but except the altar-piece in the Church of S. Francesco, all are too similar to Andrea’s and Giovanni’s works not to be attributed to them. In the altar-piece which represents the ” Nativity,” the figures of S. Francis and S. Jerome, and especially the Virgin and Child, betoken the superior hand and style of Luca. The lovely coronal of cherubs’ heads is most noteworthy, and the whole altar-piece is of exquisite handicraft. – source

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