Luca della Robbia (1400 -1482) (Studio of), The Madonna and Child with a Choir of Angels. Photo courtesy Tomasso Brothers Fine Art

Stucco, with traces of polychromy; 46 cm ( 18 in.) diameter; 59 cm (23 1/4 in.) high; 58.5 cm ( 23 in.) wide.

This roundel records a significant, early, devotional composition by the up-and-coming Luca della Robbia as he emerged from the seminal experience of Ghiberti’s workshop for the first set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistry. The graceful hovering angels, with their calligraphic folds of drapery, mark a debt to his master Ghiberti. He also observed the trajectory of Donatello (some thirteen years older than him) from that workshop into the public eye, with his early statues of saints and prophets and his reliefs fashioned in very shallow relief, like the exhibition piece. Luca had reached the peak of his artistic prowess by 1436, having been commissioned to carve a Cantoria (Singing gallery) to match another by Donatello for the crossing of the newly domed Cathedral.

The present rare Early Renaissance piece of sculpture is known in no more than a few other examples, of which the best (though worn) is a modelled plaque in terracotta in the Louvre: despite some earlier scholars’ doubts, this has now been proved to be authentic. In the Louvre piece, within an outer rectangle, the circle with the figures is inscribed, presumably in order to produce a mould, from which a bronze might have been intended to be cast. Otherwise only casts in stucco are known, but this is not to say that a bronze medallion, similar to a surviving one that Luca cast for the sacramental tabernacle in Sant’Egidio, Florence (now in the church of Peretola, with the roundel being kept in the Bargello) was not made. As Pope-Hennessy writes (1980, p. 257): “The analogies with authenticated works by Luca are too close to enable the lost original to be ascribed to any other hand”.

The present cast was well catalogued by the leading lights of their day, in 1912 by Mr (later Sir) Eric (R.D.) Maclagan, later Keeper of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in 1980 by his successor in that post, Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who wrote as follows (1980, p. 76, selected text): “No doubt Luca, at this and at an earlier time, produced other small-scale bronze reliefs. The only two of which we have a record are also generically Ghibertesque. The first shows the Virgin seated on clouds with the Child in her lap, surrounded by six flying angels, which seem, in their staid fashion, to depend from the angels modelled by Ghiberti for the Arca di San Zenobio. The composition is known from upwards of nine versions in stucco and terracotta, sometimes circular, and sometimes, as in a version in the Louvre, a circle impressed within a square, all of which seem to have been made, at first or second hand, from a single superior original. The known versions are unequal in quality, and it was inferred by Marquand from their uniformity that they were modern (as, indeed, some of them may be). In some cases, as we might expect, they show traces of gilding or pigmentation, and there is every reason to suppose that they were made commercially. The prototype must have been well known, since it is recorded by a Pisanello follower in a drawing in the Ambrosiana in Milan, in which certain details have been modified” (on which see now Gentilini and Fornasari 2009, p. 174, no. 12, ill.).

The sculptural image of the Virgin and Child in a roundel was not common before the Renaissance: Hauptmann regarded as the earliest example an ivory book cover of the tenth century in Berlin, which corresponds closely to contemporary Byzantine mosaics (Hauptmann 1936, p. 111, fig. 22). The first fully sculptural treatment in an Italian context appears to be a marble roundel in the Collegiata at Empoli from the school of the Pisani, which is only 35 cm in diameter (Hauptmann 1936, p. 113, fig. 23): its original purpose and context are not known, but it is interesting to see how the figures are deliberately related to the circular frame. Then there is a class of roundels with the Virgin and Child to be found on Neapolitan sarcophagi of the fourteenth century (Hauptmann 1936, p. 113, n. 4; Pope- Hennessy and Lightbown 1964, no. 40). A link with Tuscany in the person of Tino di Camaino might be presumed, but no such sarcophagi survive, if they ever existed, in Florence. There, the Virgin and Child featured in frames of various, typically Gothic, shapes on tombs of the late fourteenth century, finally to emerge in a semi-circular lunette on the tomb by Donatello and Michelozzo for the anti-pope John XXIII in the Baptistry at Florence (c. 1424–27). Not until Bernardo Rossellino’s tomb of Leonardo Bruni (d. 1444) did the image appear in a completely circular frame, consistent with the geometrical purity of early Renaissance architecture. Thenceforth, the roundel of the Virgin and Child was to be a standard component of the ‘humanist tomb’, as proposed by Antonio Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole and Benedetto da Maiano, to mention only the most famous exponents. C.A.

RELATED LITERATURE: Catalogue of a Collection of Italian Sculpture and Other Plastic Art of the Renaissance, exh. cat., Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1913, pp. 38–39, ‘Sculpture’, no. 18; A. Marquand, Luca della Robbia, London, Oxford, 1914, pp. 229–31 (after earlier acceptance, sceptical of their authenticity); M. Hauptmann, Der Tondo, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1936; J. Pope-Hennessy and R. Lightbown, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1964, no. 40; J. Pope-Hennessy, Luca della Robbia, Oxford, 1980, pp. 67, 257, cat. no. 45, pl. 94B; G.C. Gentilini, I Della Robbia: la scultura invetriata nel Rinascimento, Florence, 1992, p. 24 (illus. p. 20); A. Darr, P. Barnet and A. Boström, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Detroit Institute of Arts, London, 2002, II, pp. 219–20, no. 265 (their cast as of doubtful authenticity); J.-R. Gaborit and M. Bormand (eds.), Les della Robbia, exh. cat., Nice, 2002, p. 96, no. IV.; G. Bresc- Bautier (ed.), Les Sculptures européennes du museé du Louvre, Paris, 2006, p. ; G.C. Gentilini and L. Fornasari, I Della Robbia: il dialogo tra le Arti nel Rinascimento, exh. cat., Museo statale, Arezzo, 2009 , pp. 315–16, no. 11 (illus. p. 174)
Provenance: Charles (J.C.) Robinson; J. Pierpont Morgan, London/New York; given by him in 1917 to the Wadsworth Athenaeum Art Museum, Hartford, Connecticut

EXHIBITED: The Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, Burlington House, London, 1888, case C, no. 7; The Burlington Fine Arts Club, Burlington House, London, 1912, ‘Sculpture’, no. 18

Exhibition: SCULTURA III- 21 - 31 October 2010 at Otto Naumann Ltd. - 22 East 80th Street, 10075, New York, USA - Catalogue no. 2.

Tomasso Brothers Fine Art. MasterArt at TEFAF 2014 on stand 814. 14-23 march 2014 - http://www.masterart.com/