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A Fine and Rare Maiolica Sculpture of St. J ohn
ModelIed by Giovanni Della Robbia

Circa 1515




77cm; 301 ‚4in.


Illustrated by Giancarlo Gentilini, G., I Della Robbia. La scultura invetriata nel Rinascimento, Florence 1992, vo1.II, p.325.

This figure is closely connected with the group ‚San Giovanni Battista fanciullo nel deserto'(H 32.5cm) in the Volpi collection in Florence (see the Volpi collection Sale Catalogue, New York, 1917, lot 48). Modelled as a high relief, it is a development of one panel in the Font in Cerreto Guidi, San Leonardo, which is dated 1511. For the cataloguing of the font and the high relief see Allan Marquand, Giovanni Della Robbia, Princeton 1920, pp 49 – 53, nos 42 and 44.

Art Historical Background

The workshops of Giovanni Della Robbia and his fellow potter Benedetto Buglioni, who also fired his works in the della Robbia workshop, put an emphasis on polychromy in order to copy the naturalistic movement of the painters during the early Renaissance. Hence also the combination of painted terracotta surface in imitation of skin with glazed sculptural details. This technique can already be seen in Andrea Verrocchio’s relief of the Resurrection of Christ, now in the Museo Nazionale dei Bargello in Florence, mid 15th Century (see F.Domestici, Die Kuenstlerfamilie Della Robbia,Florence 1992,p.16, il1.21).

Both Giovanni della Robbia and Buglioni were following in their works the Platonian principle that beauty is based on harmony and grace as discussed by Luigini in his book Libro della bella donna, 1554 and by Firenzuola in Celso, 1541.

Firenzuola states in op.cit,„thick, long and curly hair falling down on to the shoulders, the forehead high, pure, serene and forming a curve; the nose should be rather fine and small, the iris of the eye not quite black, the mouth better too large than too small; the chin round with a little dimple and slightly pink which creates its own, special beauty; the hand should be rather large and a littly podgy without visible veins … “ .The present example representing these principles to the very best.

Frog and Lizard Motif

The brown and green lead-glazed base, modelled in imitation of grassy rock with a frog and a lizard shown on either side, is an irnportant and most interesting art historical feature. It is a direct reference to the aim of the humanist Renaissance artist to depict nature as realistically as possible. Nevertheless, this style is usually asssociated with the French potter Bernard Palissy who worked at Saintes in France 1542-1562. With the fact that the date of manufacture of this figure of St John is proven, the use of this colour scheme and the application of such naturalistically modelIed reptiles shows that this was indeed Giovanni della Robbia’s idea and not that of Bernard Palissy. The idea was most probably brought to France by Giovanni’s brother Girolamo, who introduced the art of sculpture there when he began to work for Franccis I in 1528 or 1529. It was he who built and decorated the famous, now destroyed, Chäteau de Madrid. Delorme gave it the name ‚Chateau de Faience‘ as it is reputed to have been sumptuously adorned with ornaments in glazed terracotta.

The sculpture of St. lohn the Baptist should be compared with the famous frieze of „The Six works of Charity“ for the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia, modelled by Santi Viviani and Benedetto Buglioni in 1526-1528 (see EDomestici, Die Künstlerfamilie Della Robbia, Florence 1992, p.77, ills.88-90).


The right arm was recently broken off at the elbow. The figure has recently been black-lighted by professionals and no further damage was found. Nevertheless, I personally believe that the head was broken off at some stage. The terracotta on all skin areas of the figure was originally painted. There is a much thicker layer of paint around the neck than on the more exposed areas of the skin. In other protected areas such as corners and creases the paint is also thicker.

An additionallayer of clay with metal enforcements is visible inside the head. The small traces of light blue tin-glaze enamel on this second layer of c1ay nevertheless suggests that this was done at the della Robbia workshop before the figure was glazed.

The black curls on the head were certainly touched up at some stage. St John’s fur, the blue cloak and sandals, show traces of original gilding.

Biographical Dates

Giovanni Della Robbia (19.5.1469 Florence -14. 7.1529 or 24.3.1530), third son of Andrea, was born at 3 o’clock in the morning in the family house and workshop at the Via Guelfa as one of twelve children. He was christened the following day with the names ‚Giovanni et Antonio‘.

In 1502 or 1503 he married Tommasa di Carlo Di Geri Bartoli; they had five children. During the late years of his father’s life, Giovanni was the most productive and leading spirit in the atelier.

Giovanni worked together with his two brothers Luca and Girolamo before they left for France in 15280r 1529. These two brothers also owned and operated a kiln in the Marehe during the early 16th Century.

Although he worked as a sculptor independently from about 1497 onwards, he was not matriculated in the ‚Arte de’Medici e degli Speziali ‚ until the year 1525.

Other works by Giovanni della Robbia

The Louvre, Paris

The Art Institute of Detroit

Bargello, Florence: incl. also pieces from the Medici collection
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Museum of Art, Cleveland

Bode Museum, Berlin

Institute of Art, Minneapolis

Museo Bardini, Florence

Museo Bandini, Fiesoie:

Musee de Cluny, Paris (‚San Giovannino nel deserto‘ same subject as the volpi example)
Coll. Bruschi, Florence: L’Incontro da Gesu and San Giovanni fanciulli

Coll. Bruschi, Arezzo,: Bust of Il Redentore

Private collection, London: Fountain of a Putto and Dolphin

Price: 87.000 Pounds Sterling


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