Theses Doctoral

Invention, Collaboration, and Authorship in the Renaissance Workshop: The Della Robbia Family and Italian Glazed Terracotta Sculpture, ca. 1430–1566

Boyd, Rachel Elizabeth

This dissertation presents a new history of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian glazed terracotta sculpture. Invented by Luca della Robbia in 1430s Florence, the medium even today remains synonymous with the Della Robbia name. Luca founded a prolific family workshop that continued to produce sculpture following his distinctive methods, and in some cases re-using his molds and other visual models. While most scholarship to date has focused on questions of attribution, this project instead investigates the artists’ methods for the codification and transmission of their distinctive technology and style, as well as the attractions that glazed terracotta held for Renaissance viewers. The Della Robbia remained the dominant practitioners of the medium for over a century, but they did not hold a monopoly: the dissertation, therefore, also considers the contemporary Buglioni workshop and other artists who contributed to collaborative projects.

Building upon recent work by conservators and materials scientists, the first chapter provides a comprehensive synthesis of the materials and techniques of glazed terracotta, in order to offer new insights into the development of the technology in the hands of Luca and his successors. Chapter 2 uses a variety of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century written sources to explore how early modern Florentines conceived of and responded to sculptures in this new medium and the processes by which they were created. Through a close reading of Luca’s will and related litigation, Chapter 3 demonstrates that the sculptor considered the art in which he instructed his nephew, Andrea, to be a form of intangible property with real financial value. The second half of the chapter examines series of closely related sculptures in order to shed light on the materials and mechanisms that facilitated transmission of knowledge and consistency in design across generations. Chapter 4 explores the appeal of this visual consistency for contemporary viewers by studying a variety of instances where glazed terracotta was used to shape devotional experience and characterize sacred environments and objects. The fifth chapter examines the structure of the Della Robbia shop as it evolved over the last decades of its existence, demonstrating that collaborations were crucial to all stages of artistic production. Instead of attempting to discern each sculptor’s individual contribution to joint projects, my study considers the nature of these partnerships, together with early modern conceptions of authorship. The conclusion draws attention to the longstanding legacy of glazed terracotta sculpture across Europe and outlines possibilities for future research.

By locating the history of glazed terracotta within a broader narrative of Renaissance sculpture, one defined not by biographies but rather by technologies, this dissertation aims to highlight the coexistence and reciprocity of the exceptional and the everyday, of processes of invention and repetition, and of the individual artist and the workshop.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Cole, Michael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2020