What are Della Robbia ceramics? The workshop: from Luca Della Robbia to Andrea Della Robbia, and then Giovanni
DELLA ROBBIA is today a style in which the ceramics refer to the original masterpieces of the Della Robbia brothers.
Luca Della Robbia (Florence, Italy 1400-1492) was in fact the artist whose great merit is of being the first to bring about the birth of a whole new style in the history of sculpture, the enameled majolica (or glazed terra cotta).
He applied to the art of terra cotta sculpture, a special purpose-made, tin-based glaze, a process know in italian as invetriatura, that soon turned out to be providential for the preservation of delicate and fragile works molded out of "earth".
The technique of glazing was actually very antique - earlier than the Roman world - but he was the one who placed it at the service of monumental plastic art that instead needed a very thin kind of glaze, hard to make (before glazing was only used for earthenware and other objects for domestic use).
Galzing was born as a necessity for the best protection of the fragile material, but now the possibility to color with a shiny enamel added, to the plastic quality of sculpture, the chromatic ones of painting.
The renowned reputation of the ceramics of Luca della Robbia was for the quality of the enamel he used. In fact, their incredible level of brilliance, lucidity, and thickness was not equivalent for that time; above all, if one considers the fact that enamel was not destined to the smooth surfaces of vases and kitchenware, but it had to cover uniformly relieved terra cotta. Therefore it had to be considerably more dense and opaque for not to have the terra cotta show through. At the maximum temperature of baking, the enamel passes to the liquid state, with a tendency to slide along the walls of the terra cotta, leaving the borders uncovered. This was one of the most difficult problems to resolve for the ceramists of that time. The enamel of Luca della Robbia was more white, dense, and covering in respect to the other workshops.
This new use of ceramics was derived from the request of the buyers that began to prefer the glazed ceramic for its lucidity, suited for churches immersed in darkness and for its weight, which made it possible to place the works on non robustal bases; and also for its economic price and rapid mass production.
It was the first reproducible sculpture.
The glazed works of Luca, in consonance with the esthetic preferences of that age are in the classic Della Robbian two-color scheme: white figures on blue backgrounds. Later he began to add more variegated colors schemes such as green, yellow and red, that however were only used in decorative trimmings, in particular for the garlands of plants, in which green leaves were intertwined with rosettes, lilies, quinces, oranges and cucumbers, enriching the deliberately limited palette of the central composition.
The heritage of his workshop was passed onto his nephew, Andrea della Robbia, and then on to Giovanni, one of Andrea’s five sons.
TODAY the Della Robbia ceramics are reproductions of those masterpieces kept now in museums all over the world and on walls of ancient churches and buildings.
Now workshops have few different ways of making the Della Robbia ceramics. The most common are "a colo" and "a calco". This with the quality of the clay used determines the fineness of the final piece. The chemical composition of clay is in fact very important and it differs depending on where it is from. The finest and the most renown is the clay from Montelupo, Impruneta and all around the Florentine province.
Then the glazing is very important. The colors of the ceramic shows the quality in the enamel used, the thickness and the chemical composition.
Today Della Robbia is also often negligently used just as a term to indicate a pattern or anything that referrers to the typical fruit garland that surrounds the original majolica pieces of the masters.
What is terra cotta?
Terra cotta is a hard semi fired waterproof ceramic clay used in pottery and building construction.
The name is Italian for "baked earth".
Our terra cotta pieces are hand made with the well know clay from Montelupo (Florence, Italy).
The characteristics of this fine and excellent clay are very unique: its chemical composition in fact makes it very hard and long lasting. Also the richness of mineral salts, after being baked, makes its unique typical color of a red-pinkish tone, never homogeneous.
It is called Galestro clay.
The look of terra cotta becomes more beautiful with time, getting a layer of salts and other agents and also from the dust in general.
That is why durability for an object made of terra cotta is important and the excellent quality of the Galestro clay guarantees it.
In Italy, some people actually, accelerate the aging process of the object made of terracotta by keeping the surfaces of the pottery always humid.
An object made with a good quality clay will last for years... even centuries!!
Styles and techniques
The term Ceramic is derived from the greek word Keramos, which is precisely the name of clay. This can have different characteristics depending on the type of mixture, baking process, and coloring.
The types most known are, terra cotta (earthenware), pottery, porcelain, and majolica (when terra cotta is applied a covering).
There are few ways to work with clay and making ceramics:
The POTTER'S WHEEL is usually used to make vases, pots, pitchers, or cylindrical pieces in general.
Using MOLDS with two different techniques, called: A COLO (à colo) or A CALCO (à calco), or free style (without molds).
There is also different types of clay and that can be "red" or "white".
Red is more rustic and heavy, white is more "polished".
Our ceramics are all made with clay from Montelupo (Florence) which is the most valuable
Our clay is "Galestro clay" for the items in terra cotta (the ones named with E). Galestro is a very thick, dense and viscous clay. Its chemical composition in fact makes it very hard and long lasting and so also pretty heavy. In fact Galestro clay is usually used to make items in terra cotta that are mostly kept outside - items that needs to be stronger - vases, sculptures etc... The richness of mineral salts, after being baked, makes its unique typical color of a red-pinkish tone, never homogeneous. But it can also be enameled to make ceramics goods of any kind and Della Robbia ceramics. These however will have a more rustic look.
The ceramics in this website, named with "M" and "S" are in white clay. The one named with "M" are made a calco, the ones named with S are made a colo.
In both of the processes a mold is used to make the finish ceramic, but the clay used has different characteristics itself and this determines the differences in the procedure of make the ceramic.
The a calco process requires a different clay then the one used in the a colo process and it also requires more time in molding the items. The clay used in the a calco technique is in fact more dense and as a final result the piece will be more heavy but perhaps less sharp (still polished).
The clay used in the a colo process is more aqueous and mellow, so it spreads itself into all the volumes of the mold more easily, reaching the details of the mold more precisely. This perhaps gets as final result a more sharp look but, also, the finished product will be of course lighter since the chemical composition of the clay was in fact more saturated respect to the clay used in the a calco process.