Dr Rachel Boyd: Familiar visions: Glazed terracotta, serial production, and devotional experience in Renaissance Tuscany

  • 5.15pm

  • Online

Chair – Prof Carol Richardson

Over the course of the fifteenth century, the Florentine Della Robbia family developed a form of glazed terracotta sculpture that even today remains instantly recognizable. The four-generation workshop crafted thousands of sculptures, ranging from small Madonna reliefs to freestanding statues and monumental altarpieces, which adorned homes, churches, and public spaces across Europe. In the past three decades, scientific analyses of Della Robbia sculptures have revolutionized our understanding of the techniques used in their production. My own research examines the ways in which the family’s characteristic imagery was codified and transmitted through molds, models, and drawings that the artists retained and reused well into the sixteenth century. This technological evidence suggests that the seriality of the workshop’s sculptures was in many cases a visual strategy adopted by the artists themselves; it was not simply the result of unthinking mechanical reproduction. Many early modern viewers, furthermore, appear to have been drawn to the familiarity and distinctive qualities of the shop’s glazed terracotta sculptures.

This presentation takes as a case study one small Virgin and Child relief attributed to the workshop of Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525). Ordered by a Dominican nun around 1500, the sculpture marks the site where, as a young girl, she experienced a vision. The relief is one of a series of related images that were in circulation well before 1500, and it is in no way an original composition, nor is it distinguished by superior facture. I examine the implications of this selection of “popular” imagery to commemorate a specific, personal vision. The reflective, opaque surfaces of glazed terracotta effectively simulated some of the features of early modern miraculous experiences, and by the late fifteenth century the medium had acquired widespread currency in central Italy as a visual language for representing, containing, and framing holy matter. This historical context not only sheds light on the seriality of much Della Robbia sculpture, but also opens up new approaches to the study of this and other Renaissance workshops and their creations.

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