Sculptor of Florence

LUCA DELLA ROBBIA, sculptor of Florence, was born in the year1388, in the house of his forefathers, which stands under the church of S. Barnaba in Florence. He was carefully brought up, so that not only was he able to read and write, but, like most Florentines, he could do such arithmetic as he needed. He was then set by his father to learn the goldsmith's art from Leonardo di Ser Giovanni, who was then esteemed the best exponent of that craft in Florence. Under this man Luca learned to design and to model in wax, and, his courage increasing, he went on to make some things of marble and of bronze. As these proved quite successful, he was led to abandon entirely the craft of goldsmith, and he devoted himself so thoroughly to sculpture that he did nothing else, spending all his days in chiselling, and his nights in designing. So diligent was he that frequently at night, when his feet grew cold, he would put them in a basket of shavings, such as carpenters leave by planing, to keep them warm, so that he need not leave his designing. I am in no wise astonished at this, seeing that no one ever excels in any worthy exercise who does not begin, while still a child, to support cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and other discomforts; and those who think that it is possible to attain to honour in ease and comfort are entirely deceived, for progress is made not in sleeping, but by watching and studying continually. Luca was barely fifteen years old when he was invited to Rimini with other young sculptors to make some figures and other marble ornaments for Sigismondo di Pandolfo Malatesta, lord of that city, who was then building a chapel in the church of S. Francesco, and a tomb for his dead wife. 1 In this work Luca afforded a striking proof of his ability in some has-reliefs which may still be seen. He was then recalled to Florence by the wardens of S. Maria del Fiore, where he did five small subjects in marble for the campanile, on the side next the church to complete the series designed by Giotto, and next to the sciences and arts previously done by Andrea Pisano, as I have related. In the first scene Luca represented Donatus teaching grammar; in the second, Plato and Aristotle, for philosophy; in the third is a man playing the lute, for music the fourth is Ptolomaeus, for astrology and the fifth Euclid, for geometry. 2 These subjects in finish, grace‚ and design were a considerable advance on the two done by Giotto, who, as I have said, represented Apelles at work, for painting, and Phidias with his chisel, for sculpture. The wardens being thus made cognizant of Luca's worth and persuaded by M. Vieri de' Medici, then a prominent popular citizen who was very fond of Luca, entrusted to him the marble ornamentation of the organ which was being constructed on a large scale, to be placed over the door of the sacristy of the church. 3 For the base of this work Luca made scenes representing choirs of music singing in various ways, and he worked so cunningly and achieved such success that, although it is sixteen braccia from the ground, one may perceive the swelling of the cheeks of the singers, the beating of the hands of the director of the music on the shoulders of the lesser ones, and, in short, the various ways of playing, singing, dancing and other pleasant actions which constitute the charm of music. Above the framework of this decoration Luca made two figures of gilt metal representing two nude angels, beautifully finished, as indeed was the whole work, which was considered most rare.

It is true that Donatello, who afterwards did the ornamentation of the other organ opposite this one, displayed much more judgment and skill than Luca, as will be said in the proper place, because he did almost the whole of the work in the rough as it were, not delicately finishing it, so that it should appear much better at a distance than Luca's; as it does, for with all his care and skill the eye cannot appreciate it well because of the very polish and finish, which are lost in the distance, as it can the almost purely rough hewn work of Donato. To this matter artists should devote much attention, because experience shows that all things seen at a distance, whether they be paintings or sculptures or any other like thing, are bolder and more vigorous in appearance if skilfully hewn in the rough than if they are carefully finished. Besides the effect obtained by distance, it often happens that these rough sketches, which are born in an instant in the heat of inspiration, express the idea of their author in a few strokes, while on the other hand too much effort and diligence sometimes sap the vitality and powers of those who never know when to leave off. Anyone who realises that all the arts of design, and not painting alone, are allied to poetry, also knows that as poems composed in a poetic fervour are the true and genuine, and far better than those produced with effort, so the works of men who excel in the arts of design are better when they are the result of a single impulse of the force of that fervour than if they are produced little by little with toil and labour. The man who knows already from the first what he is going to do, as should always be the case, invariably proceeds on his way towards perfect realisation with great ease. At the same time, since men are not all of one stamp, there are some, though they are rare, who do not do well unless they go slowly. Not to speak of painters, it is said among poets that the very Rev. and learned Bembo expends months and even years of effort to make a sonnet, so that it is small wonder if this should sometimes be the case in our arts. But for the most part the contrary is the rule, as I have said above; and yet the vulgar prefer a certain external and apparent delicacy, where the lack of what is essential is concealed by the care bestowed, to a good work produced with reason and judgment but not so smooth or so highly finished.

But to return to Luca. He finished this work, which gave great satisfaction, and was then commissioned to do the bronze door of the sacristy, 4 which he divided into ten compartments, five on each side. At each corner he placed a man's head, all of them being different: youths, old men, men of middle age, bearded, clean shaven, in fact, every variety and all good of their kind, so that the framework is most ornate. In the scenes for the panels, beginning from the top, he represented a Madonna of wonderful grace, with the Child in her arms, and the resurrection of Christ from the tomb. Beneath these, in each of the first four panels, is the figure of an Evangelist, and under them are the four Doctors of the Church who are writing in various attitudes. All this work is so clear and so highly finished that it is a marvel, and it shows the advantage to Luca of his early training as a goldsmith. On the completion of these things he made an estimate of what he had gained upon them, and of the time which he had expended in making them, and came to realise how slight had been his advantage, and how great his labour. Accordingly he determined to abandon marble and bronze, and to see if he could derive greater advantage from other methods. It then occurred to him that clay can be manipulated with ease and little trouble, and that the only thing required was to discover a means whereby work produced in this material could be preserved a long time. By dint of many experiments he discovered a method of protecting it from the injury of time, for he found that he could render such works practically imperishable, by covering the clay with a glaze made of tin, litharge, antimony and other materials, baked in the fire in a specially constructed furnace. For this method, of which he was the inventor, he won loud praises, and all succeeding ages are under an obligation to him.

Having thus succeeded in attaining his purpose, Luca's first work was for the tympanum over the bronze door which he had made for the sacristy of S. Maria del Fiore, beneath the organ; this being a Resurrection of Christ of such beauty that when it was set up it was admired as a work of great value. The wardens immediately desired him to do another for the tympanum of the door where Donatello had made the ornament of the organ. 5 Accordingly Luca made a very fine representation of Jesus Christ ascending to heaven. Now this method, beautiful and useful as it was especially for places where there is water, and where on account of damp and other reasons there can be no Pictures, did not satisfy Luca, and he found a means of improving it. Whereas his first works were simply white, he now introduced colour into them to the wonder and admiration of everyone. Among the earliest to employ Luca upon works in coloured clay was the magnificent Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, 6 for whom he decorated with various fancies, in half-relief, the whole of the vaulting of the scriptorium in a palace built, as I shall relate, by Cosimo, his father, and also the pavement, a remarkable work and very cool in summer. It is certainly wonderful that, although this method was then very difficult, the utmost care being required in baking the clay, Luca should have brought this work to such a pitch of perfection that the vaulting as well as the pavement look as if they were made of a single piece only.

The fame of these things spread not only throughout Italy but all through Europe, and to such an extent that the Florentine merchants kept Luca constantly employed, to his great advantage, sending his works to every part of the world. And because he could not satisfy all their demands by himself, he took away his brothers, Ottaviano and Agostino; from the chisel and set them to do this work, at which they all gained far more than they had hitherto done in sculpture. Besides the works which they sent to France and Spain, they also did many things in Tuscany, notably the very handsome vaulting with octagonal ornaments of the marble chapel in the church of S. Miniato a Monte for Piero de' Medici, which rests upon four columns in the middle of the church. 7 But the most remarkable work of this kind which issued from his hands was the vaulting of the chapel of St. James in the same church, where the cardinal of Portugal is buried. 8 In this, although it is without sharp angles, they made the four Evangelists in four medallions at the corners, and in the middle the Holy Spirit, in a medallion, filling the remainder of the space with scales which cover the vault‚ and diminish gradually as they approach the centre. Nothing of the same kind could be better, nor could any constructive work be more carefully carried out. In a small arch over the door of the church of S. Piero Buonconsiglio, below the Mercato Vecchio, he did a Madonna surrounded by angels in a very life-like manner. Over the door of a little church near S. Pier Maggiore he did another Madonna, in a half-circle, and some angels, which are considered very fine. 9 Again, in the chapter-house of S. Croce, erected by the family of the Pazzi under the direction of Pippo di ser Brunellesco, he did all the figures in terra cotta, both within and without. 10 It is said that Luca sent some very fine figures in full relief to the King of Spain, together with some works in marble. For Naples he made in Florence the marble tomb for the infant brother of the Duke of Calabria, decorated with many ornaments in terra cotta, a work in which he was assisted by his brother Agostino. Luca next endeavoured to discover a method of painting figures and subjects in the flat in terra cotta, in order to impart life to his representations. As an experiment he did a medallion which is over the niche of the four saints on the exterior of or. S. Michele On this flat surface he gave five examples of the tools and insignia of the handicraftsmen, with very beautiful ornamentation. He did two other medallions in the same place, in relief, one of Our Lady for the art of the apothecaries, and in the other, for the merchants, he made a lily above a bale, surrounded by a festoon of flowers and leaves of various kinds, so well done that they look quite natural and not like painted terracotta. 11 For M. Benozzo Federighi, 12 bishop of Fiesole, he made a marble tomb in the church of S. Brancazio, with the recumbent effigy of the bishop upon it, from life, and three other half-length figures. In the ornamentation of the pilasters of this work he painted on the flat some festoons made up of fruits and flowers, and so natural that it would be impossible to do better with a brush and colours. Indeed, this work is a marvel and most rare, for Luca has made the lights and shades so well that one would imagine it impossible to obtain such results from the fire. If this artist had lived longer we should have seen even greater things issue from his hands, because shortly before his death he had begun to make scenes and to paint figures on flat surfaces, some pieces of which I have seen in his house, which have led me to believe that he would have succeeded had not death, which always snatches away the best when they are about to make some improvement in the world, deprived him of life before his time.

Luca's brothers, Ottaviano and Agostino, survived him, and the latter had a son, another Luca, who was a very learned man in his day. Agostino took up the art after Luca, and in the year 1461 he made the facade of S. Bernardino at Perugia, Introducing three subjects in bas-relief, and four finely executed figures in full relief, beautifully finished. To this work he signed his name thus:


Andrea, 13 Luca's nephew, a member of the same family, was an excellent workman in marble, as may be seen in the chapel of S. Mariadelle Grazie outside Arezzo, where he made for the Community many small figures in full and in half-relief on a large marble ornament which was made for a Virgin by the hand of Parri di Spinello of Arezzo. Andrea also did the terra-cotta slab for the Chapel of Puccio di Magio in S. Francesco in that city, and that of the Circumcision for the family of the Bacci. Again, in S. Maria in Grado, there is a very fine slab by his hand with a number of figures, and on another slab at the high altar in the company of the Trinity is a God the Father, by him, supporting with His arms the crucified Christ, surrounded by a multitude of angels, while St. Donato and St. Bernard kneel beneath. He also did a number of bas-reliefs in the church and other places of the Sasso della Vernia, which have been preserved in that desert place, where no painting could have carefully observe a proper consistency in the employment of his colours, for he made his fields blue, his city red, and his buildings of various hues according to his fancy. In this he was at fault, for buildings which are represented to be of stone cannot and ought not to be coloured of another tint. It is said that, while Paolo was engaged upon this work, the abbot of the place gave him hardly anything but cheese to eat. Tired of this treatment, Paolo, being a shy man, determined that he would no longer go there to work. When the abbot sent for him, and when he heard the friars asking for him; he was never at home and if he met by accident any members of the order in Florence, he took to flight as fast as he could in order to escape them. One day two of the more curious among them, younger than himself, caught him up, and asked why he did not return to finish the work which he had begun, and why he ran away when he saw the friars. Paolo replied, "You have reduced me to such a condition that not only do I run away from you, but I am unable to work or to pass by places where carpenters are. This is entirely due to the thoughtlessness of your abbot, who, by means of his dishes and soups, which are always made with cheese, has put so much cheese, into my body, that as I consist entirely of that commodity, I am in terror lest they should take me to turn into glue. If I went on any longer at this rate, I should soon be not Paolo, but cheese." The friars left him, laughing loudly, and related all to the abbot, who induced him to return to work, and provided other food for him besides cheese. In the chapel of S. Oirolamo of the Pugliesi in the Carmine he painted the altar front of SS. Cosmo and Damian. In the house of the of edici he painted some scenes of animals in tempera on canvas. He always delighted to paint animals, and took the utmost pains to do so well. His house was always full of painted representations of birds, cats, dogs and every sort of strange animal of which he could get drawings, as he was too poor to have the living creatures themselves. His favourite animals were birds (uccelli), and from this circumstance he derived his name, Paolo Uccelli.

In the same house, among other scenes of animals, he made some lions fighting each other with such terrible vigour and fury that they seem alive. Among many other scenes there is one particularly remarkable of a serpent fighting with a lion, and showing fury in its powerful movements and the poison which it is shooting from its mouth and eyes, while a little country girl hard-by is looking after an ox, beautifully ford shortened. The design for this drawing, by Paolo's own hand, is in our book as well as that of the peasant girl who is in the act of running away from the animals in her fright. The same scene contains some very life-like shepherds, and a landscape which was considered a very fine thing in its day. On some other canvasses he made scenes of men-at-arms of the time on horseback, comprising a goodly number of portraits. He was afterwards allotted some scenes in the cloister of S. Maria Novella. 14 The first of these is in the way from the church to the cloister, and represents the creation of the animals, with an infinite number of different creatures, birds, beasts and fishes. He was, as I have said, very fanciful, and took great delight in making animals well, showing the pride of some lions, eager to fight, the fleetness and timidity of certain stags and bucks, in addition to which the birds and fishes with their feathers and scales are most realistic. Here also he made the Creation of man and of woman, with their Fall, in a beautiful style, carefully and finely executed. In this work he took pleasure in the colouring of the trees, which had not usually been well done up to that time. He was the first among the old painters who won a name for doing landscapes well, and he brought this branch of art to a greater pitch of perfection than his predecessors. It is true that those who succeeded him made them more perfectly, because with all his efforts he never succeeded in giving them that softness and unity achieved in the oil-paintings of our own day. But Paolo was absorbed by his questions of perspective, and continued to persevere with his vanishing-point, doing everything which he saw: fields, arable land, ditches and other details of Nature in his dry, sharp style, whereas if he had picked out what was good and had worked specially at those things which turn out well in pictures, his works would have been among the most perfect. When he had completed this task, he worked in the same cloister beneath two scenes by the hands of other artists, painting the Flood and Noah's ark, representing the dead. The tempest, the fury of the winds, the flashes of lightning, the rooting up of trees, and the terror of men with such pains, and with so much art and diligence, that it is impossible to praise it too highly. In perspective he has represented a dead body, foreshortened, whose eyes are being pecked out by a crow, and a drowned child, whose body, being full of water, is arched up. He further represented various human emotions, such as the disregard of the water by two men fighting on horseback, the extreme terror of death of a woman and a man who are riding a buffalo; but as his hind-parts are sinking they are despairing of all hope of safety.

The work is of such excellence that Paolo acquired the greatest fame from it. His use of perspective in this, in the diminution of figures, the representation of large masses and other things, is certainly very striking. Under this scene he painted Noah's drunkenness and the irreverence of Canaan his son, introducing the portrait of his friend Dello, painter and sculptor of Florence, with Shem and Japhet, who are covering his shame. Here in perspective he made a cask, the curved lines being considered very fine. Here also is a trellis work covered with grapes, the squares of which diminish towards the vanishing-point; but he was at fault, because the diminution of the lower plane, where the feet of the figures are set, follows the lines of the trellis, and the cask does not follow the same vanishing-lines. I am amazed that so accurate and diligent a man should have fallen into such an error. He further made the sacrifice of Noah, the ark being open in perspective, with ranges of perches in the upper parts divided into regular rows where the birds are stationed, which fly out in flocks foreshortened in several directions. In the air appears God the Father above the sacrifice which Noah and his sons are making. This is the most difficult figure represented by Paolo in all his works, because it is flying towards the wall with the head foreshortened, and it has such force, and is in such strong relief, that it has the appearance of forcing its way through Besides this, Noah is surrounded by a large number of different animals of great excellence. In fact Paolo imparted such softness and grace to all this work that it is beyond comparison superior to all his others, being praised not only at that time, but much admired to-day. In S. Maria del Fiore, in memory of Giovanni Acuto, an English captain of the Florentines, who died in the year 1393, he made a remarkably fine horse of exceptional size in terraverde surmounted by the figure of the captain in chiaroscuro of the colour of terra verde, forming part of a picture ten braccia high, in the middle of one side of the church, where he drew a large sarcophagus in perspective as if the body was inside, the mounted figure, armed as a captain, being above this. 15 The work was considered a very fine example of that kind of painting, and is still so esteemed, and if Paolo had not represented the horse as moving his legs on one side only, a thing horses cannot do without falling, the work would be perfect. The error probably was due to the fact that he could not ride, and had no practical knowledge of horses as of other animals. The perspective of the horse, which is very large, is fine, and on the pedestal is the inscription PAOLIUCCELLI OPUS. At the same time, and in the same church, over the principal doorway he painted in colours the dial of the hours, with four heads at the corners, coloured in fresco.

He also did in verdeterra 16 the loggia overlooking the garden of the monastery of the Angeli, and facing westward, representing under each arch a scene from the life of St. Benedict the abbot, including the most noteworthy events of his life until the time of his death. Among a number of striking incidents, there is one where a monastery has fallen through the machinations of the devil, and under the stones and timbers lays a dead friar. No less noteworthy is the terror of another monk, round whose naked form, as he flies, the draperies flutter in most graceful folds. The work has so greatly influenced the ideas of artists that they have always imitated this device. Very beautiful also is the figure of St. Benedict in the act of raising the dead friar; with gravity and devotion, in the presence of all his monks. In fact, all these scenes contain things that are worthy of attention, especially in some instances where the perspective has been carried out to the very slates and tiles of the roof. In the death scene of St. Benedict there are some remarkably fine representations of infirm and decrepit people, who have come to see him, while the monks are making his obsequies and lamenting. Among all these men so affectionate and devoted to the saint, there is a remarkable figure of an old monk with crutches under his arms, who displays admirable feeling and possibly hopes to recover his health. Although this work contains no coloured landscapes and not many buildings or difficult perspectives, yet the design is large and there is much that is good. Many houses ‚of Florence possess a number of small pictures in perspective for the sides of couches, beds and other things, by Paolo's hand, and there are some battle scenes by him in four pictures on wood at Gualfonda, on a terrace in the garden, which belonged to the Bartolini, containing horses and armed men in the apparel of the time. 17 Among the men are portraits of Paolo Orsino, Ottobuono da Parma, Luca da Canale,and Carlo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, all commanders of that time. These pictures being damaged, and having suffered a good deal, were restored in our own day by Giuliano Bugiardini, who has done them more harm than good. Paolo was taken by Donato to Padua, when the latter was working there, and painted some giants at the entry of the house of the Vitali, inverde terra, which are so good that Andrea Mantegna thought very highly of them, as I have found from a Latin letter written by Girolamo Campagnolo to M. Leonico Tomco, the philosopher. The vaulting of the Peruzzi was done by Paolo in fresco, by triangles in perspective, and in the corners he painted the four elements, associating an appropriate animal with each: with earth a mole, with water a fish, with fire a salamander, and with air a chameleon, which lives upon it and can assume every colour. Having never seen a chameleon, he displayed a remarkable simplicity in representing it as a large and awkward camels wallowing air, though it is really like a small shrivelled lizard. It is certain that Paolo's labours in painting were very severe, for he designed so much that he left his chests full of drawings to his relations, as they have themselves informed me. But although it is undoubtedly a good thing to make designs, yet it is better to carry them out in practice, for large works enjoy a longer life than sheets of drawings. Our book contains a quantity of figures, perspectives, birds and wonderfully fine animals, but the best thing of all is a nzazzocchio drawn in outline only, but so fine that only Paolo's patience could have accomplished it. Eccentric as he was, Paolo loved talent in artists, and in order that he might leave a memorial of them to posterity, he drew the portraits of five of the most distinguished on a long pane land kept it in his house. 18 One was Giotto, as the light and father of the art, then Filippo di ser Brunnellescli for architecture, Donatello for sculpture, himself for perspective and animals, and his friend Giovanni Manetti for mathematics, with whom he frequently talked and argued on questions of Euclid. It is said that, upon his being commissioned to do a St. Thomas examining the wounds of Christ, over the door of that saint in the Mercato Vecchio, he devoted all his abilities to the task, saying that he wished it to be a proof of his worth and knowledge. Accordingly he shut it round with a hoarding so that no one should see it until it was finished. One day he fell in with Donato, by himself, who asked, "What is this work of yours which you, are keeping so close?" Paolo simply said, "You shall see. Donato would not press him to say more, and expected, as usual, to see a miracle when the time came. One morning, when Donato happened to be in the Mercato Vecchio buying fruit, he saw Paolo uncovering his work, and went up courteously to greet him. Paolo, who was curious to hear his opinion, asked him what he thought of the picture. After Donato had made a good inspection of it he said "Ah, Paolo, now that you ought to be covering it up, you uncover it." This criticism made PaoJo very sad, for he had obtained much more blame for this last labour of his than he had expected praise, and being thoroughly discouraged he would not venture out, but shut himself up in his house, devoting himself to perspective, which left him in poverty and obscurity to the end of his days. Arrived at a great age, with little comfort for his advanced years, he died in the eighty-third year of his life, in 1432, and was buried in S. Maria Novella. He left a daughter who could design, and a wife who used to say that Paolo would remain the night long in his study to work out the lines of his perspective, and that when she called him to come to rest, he replied, "Oh what a sweet thing this perspective is" And in truth, if it was sweet to him, his labours have rendered it no less dear and useful to those who have practised it after him.

  • 1 Begun in 1447.
  • 2 Allotted 1437 and finished 1440. The man playing the lute represents Orpheus; Astronomy and Geometry are shown together, and Vasari omits Tubal Cain.
  • 3 Commissioned 1433 and set up 28 August, 1438.
  • 4 In 1446, in conjunction with Michelozzo and Maso di Bartolommeo. Payments continue up to 1468; all the work was done by Luca.
  • 5 In 1443.
  • 6 In 1446.
  • 7 In 1448.
  • 8 The chapel was built in 1462. The medallions contain Virtues; the four Evangetists were done by Luca for the similar work of S. Giobbe Venice.
  • 9 Now in the Bargello.
  • 10 The Pazzi Chapel was begun in 1429 and completed 1443.
  • 11 The first medallion is over Nanni di Banco's four saints; the Madonna was done about 1465; the lily in 1163 over Verrocchio's St. Thomas.
  • 12 Federighi died in 1450; the tomb was commissioned 1455; it has been in the Trinitli since 1890.
  • 13 1435-1525.
  • 14 About 1446.
  • 15 Sir John Hawk wood died 17 March, 1394. The work was done in1436.
  • 16 Green earth, used as a Pignaentit is silicious earth coloured by protoxide of iron.
  • 17 Three of these battle scenes are izi‚ public galleries: the Uffizi, the Louvre and the National Gallery. They are supposed to represent the battle of S. Romano, fought in 1432.
  • 18 Now in the Louvre; critics attribute it to Autonello da Messina.

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