Glazed terracotta sculptures represented a fundamental innovation in Renaissance art.
Using glazed terracotta and majolica in monumental sculpture was a truly revolutionary idea. This art form is a wonderful combination of artistic genius, creativity, imagination and extraordinary techniques. The Della Robbia were outstanding craftsmen and artists who were able to develop artistic works using methods unknown to the ancients. They combined painting, sculpture, architecture and applied arts, creating works that truly represented the link between their creative skills and their environmental context.
For centuries the formula for glazed terracotta remained an authentic mystery. The Della Robbia family kept it a secret for decades, refusing to record their methods or technical practices. This factor convinced their contemporaries of the outstanding nature of their invention. Legend tells of a ‘magic recipe’ that a women from the Della Robbia family gave to Benedetto Buglione—thus proving that said techniques were, in fact, a re-adaptation of an ancient art rather than a brand new invention.
The said technique had been used by ancient cultures in the Orient and it was later inherited by the Romans and the Byzantines. The Arabs passed it on to the Moor cultures in Europe, particularly in Spain and Maiorca (Majoilica) which became a mercantile centre for earthenware, vases and enamels. Lucca della Robbia is credited for having skillfully rediscovered the technique and reaching a level of exceptional artistic creativity. Vasari wrote of the master saying, ‘We must consider that it is rather easy to work with terracotta—what was really missing was the ability to make ceramic works last over time.
Della Robbia searched so much that he found a way to protect them from damage. After experimenting with many techniques, Della Robbia found a way to cover them with a glaze, made of tin, terra, gaiter, antimony and other minerals and combinations. Then, he baked them in a kiln and his techniques became so efficient that his works have become almost eternal.’