Luca della Robbia (1399/1400–1482) was an Italian sculptor from Florence, noted for his glazed terracotta roundels, in a technique he apparently developed himself. Though a leading sculptor in stone, after developing his technique in the early 1440s, he mainly produced terracotta thereafter, and passed the technique on to his nephew Andrea della Robbia and great-nephew Giovanni della Robbia. His large workshop produced both cheaper works cast from moulds in multiple versions, and more expensive one-off individually modelled pieces.
The glaze made his creations more durable in the outdoors and thus suitable for use on the exterior of buildings. His work is noted for its charm rather than the drama of the work of some of his contemporaries. Two of his famous works are The Nativity, c. 1460 and Madonna and Child, c. 1475. In stone his most famous work is also his first major commission, the choir gallery or "cantoria" in Florence Cathedral (1431–1438).
Della Robbia was praised by his compatriot Leon Battista Alberti for genius comparable to that of the sculptors Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and the painter Masaccio. By ranking him with contemporary artists of this stature, Alberti reminds us of the interest and strength of Luca's work in marble and bronze, as well as in the terra-cottas always associated with his name.
The details of Luca della Robbia's youth, training, or early sculpture come mainly from Vasari and other early writers and are somewhat contradictory. He was born in Florence, the son of a member of the Arte de Lana or wool-workers guild. He may have trained as a goldsmith, and then worked with Ghiberti on the famous doors of the Florence Baptistry. He was heavily influenced by Donatello, and in the 1420s was used by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi for sculpture on his buildings. His important commission for the Cantoria of Florence Cathedral came before he joined the sculptor's guild (Arte dei Maestri di Pietra e Legname, for workers in stone and wood) in 1432. According to Vasari, the Medici family were responsible for getting him the commission.
His first documented commission was the Cantoria ("Singing Gallery"; 1431–1438) for the organ loft of Cathedral of Florence. During the seven years it took della Robbia to carve the reliefs, his style developed. The earliest carved panels are fairly symmetric and lack movement, while in later panels, the movement of the singers becomes much more evident and lively. The advanced nature of the work proves that he must have been an accomplished artist long before joining the Sculptors Guild in 1432. The Singing Gallery shows children singing, dancing, and making music to "praise the Lord" in the words of Psalm 150. Their figures are at once lively, finely observed, and gracefully combined in groups designed to fit the ten panels of the gallery.
In the next two decades della Robbia executed important commissions in marble and bronze: a series of marble reliefs (1437) for the bell tower of the Cathedral of Florence; a marble and enameled terra-cotta tabernacle (1443), now in S. Maria in Peretola; bronze angels to enrich the Singing Gallery; and, in collaboration with Michelozzo, the large project of bronze doors for the Sacristy of the Cathedral. These doors were not finished until 1469; their reliance on a few figures placed in simple, orderly compositions against a flat ground, contrasts sharply with the elaborate pictorial effects of Lorenzo Ghiberti's more famous Baptistery doors.
The most important existing work in marble by Luca (executed in 1454–1456) is the tomb of Benozzo Federighi, bishop of Fiesole, originally placed in the church of San Pancrazio, Florence, but removed to San Francesco di Paola on the Bellosguardo road outside the city in 1783. In 1898 it was again removed to the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. An effigy of the bishop in a restful pose lies on a sarcophagus sculptured with graceful reliefs of angels holding a wreath which contains the inscription. Above are three-quarter length figures of Christ between St John and the Virgin, of conventional type. The whole is surrounded by a rectangular frame formed of painted tiles. On each tile is painted, with enamel pigments, a bunch of flowers and fruit in brilliant realistic colors. Though the bunch of flowers on each is painted on one slab, the ground of each tile is formed of separate pieces, fitted together like a kind of mosaic, probably because the pigment of the ground required a different degree of heat in firing from that needed for the enamel painting of the center.
His earliest surviving freestanding sculpture is the white tin-glazed terracotta Visitation in the church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas of Pistoia, dating to 1445. Although the date of della Robbia's first work in colored glazed terra-cotta is not known, his control of this medium was clearly enough recognized to justify two major commissions for the duomo of Florence: the large reliefs of the Resurrection (also from 1445) and the Ascension of Christ (1446). The pliant medium of baked clay covered with a "slip" of vitrified lead and refined minerals permitted a lustrous, polished surface capable of reflecting light and using color that was beautifully appropriate for architectural sculpture. Whether animating the vast, somber space of the Cathedral or in the series Twelve Apostles gracing the pristine surfaces of the small Pazzi Chapel (1443–1450) in Florence, della Robbia's reliefs in this medium achieved a perfection never before or since attained.
Working with assistants, including members of his own family, della Robbia produced a number of decorative reliefs and altarpieces until the end of his life. One of the finest and richest examples is the enameled terra-cotta ceiling (1466) of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in San Miniato, Florence. Another relief, acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1861, shows his free use of color: an enormous medallion containing the arms of René of Anjou and other heraldic devices; it is surrounded by a splendidly modelled wreath of fruit and flowers, especially apples, lemons, oranges and fir cones, all of which are brilliantly colored. This medallion was set up on the facade of the Pazzi Palace to commemorate René's visit to Florence in 1442.
His works were highly popular, and many were sent outside Florence; the larger ones could be disassembled to facilitate transport. In 1446 he bought a large house which also contained his workshop; this remained the base of the family workshop until the 1520s.
In 1471 Luca della Robbia was elected president of the Florentine Guild of Sculptors, but he refused on account of his age and infirmity. It shows, however, the very high estimation in which he was held by his contemporaries. He died in Florence during February 1483,
taking most of his secrets of tin-based glaze with him.