These two exceptionally fine portrait roundels probably represent young Florentine noblemen. Vigorously modeled in high relief, their handsome, youthful features project an air of confidence, dignity, and intelligence. Sculpted in late Quattrocento Florence during the vibrant period leading up to the High Renaissance, they exemplify a high point in the quality of production of the famed della Robbia family workshop, early in the independent career of one of the most celebrated sculptors of his day, Andrea della Robbia.
Andrea was the protégé of the founder of the family workshop, his uncle Luca della Robbia, whom Alberti placed among Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio and Ghiberti as one of the five great artists of the Florentine Renaissance. Luca invented the technique of producing glazed terracotta relief sculptures that imitated marble statuary in a format that was more rapidly produced, more easily transported, and above all more colorful. The popularity of the style kept the family enormously active in the creation of altarpieces, tabernacles, busts, and architectural elements from the early 15th century well into the 16th. Andrea trained under Luca from a young age and worked by his side before taking over the workshop by 1470. His style was more complex, colorful, and expressive than Luca's more reserved work, and under his direction the workshop grew considerably. By the end of the 15th century more of the work was taken on by assistants, including several of Andrea's sons who would carry on the family business after Andrea's death in 1525.
The form of the present reliefs, with head and shoulders emerging from a concave, circular backdrop, derives from the portrait heads emerging from trefoil frames cornering the panels of Luca's doors for the North Sacristy of the Florence Cathedral. A group of similar roundels by Andrea depicting male youths include examples in the Bode Museum in Berlin (Pope-Hennesey 1980, no. 77), the Metropolitan Museum in New York (accession no. 03.22), and the Detroit Institute of Art (Darr 2002, no. 58). The subjects have been variously interpereted as saints, unknown youths, or possibly ideal portraits of male beauty. The distinctive, though idealized, features of the present pair suggest that they represent particular contemporary sitters, probably sons of Florentine nobility. Marquand believed that the roundels in the Bode Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art were very close to the work of Luca, but ultimately gives them to Andrea. Bode concurred regarding the Berlin example, and Pope-Hennessey felt that the Berlin medallion clearly comes from the period of transition between Luca and Andrea when Andrea inherited the workshop in around 1470.
The Berlin roundel probably was once framed within a garland, now lost, as were the New York and Detroit roundels. It is possible that the present pair once had such surrounds or that they were set directly into a wall without decorative framework.
Allan Marquand, Andrea della Robbia and his atelier, Princeton, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 25-29, nos. 11-15
John Pope-Hennessey, Luca della Robbia, Ithaca, 1980, p. 272, no. 77, fig. 61
Alan Darr, Italian Sculpture in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 2002, vol. I, pp. 116-117, no. 58
Giancarlo Gentilini, I Della Robbia : la scultura invetriata nel Rinascimento, Florence, 1998
Diameter of each: 17 in.; 43.2 cm.
youth with yellow outer cloak:
Pierre Courthon, "Luca della Robbia, Portraitiste", in L'Art et les Artistes, 1925, p. 224
Ducrot Collection, Palermo
M&R Stora, Paris
Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, Cincinatti
Parke Bernet Galleries, Inc., Property from the collection of Mrs. Christian R. Holmes, April 15-18, 1942, lots 724 and 725
Baron Cassel van Doorn, New York
Parke Bernet Galleries, Property from the Estate of the Late Baron Cassel van Doorn, December 9-10, 1955, lots 62 and 63