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THE DELLA ROBBIA DEBACLE
by Paul Jeromack
 
Accidents will happen, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art seems to have an unfortunate knack for smashing its most beautiful Italian Renaissance sculptures. On Oct. 8, 1990, its most precious marble sculpture of the period, Tullio Lombardoís life-size Adam (Venetian, 1490-95) -- considered to be the first monumental sculpture of a nude in the Renaissance -- collapsed and broke into pieces when its hollow plywood base buckled under its weight.

More recently, during the evening or early morning of June 30-July 1, 2008, the Metís most important terracotta relief by Andrea della Robbia (Florentine, 1435-1525), a large and beautiful blue-and-white glazed lunette relief depicting St. Michael the Archangel Weighing Souls, came undone from its metal mounts, crashing to the stone floor from the high over-door wall where it had been hanging.

According to an official statement released to the press, "the 62 x 32 in. relief, which has been on view in its current location since 1996, fell to a stone floor and suffered some damage. Preliminary inspection indicates that the relief has not been irrevocably harmed and that it can be repaired and again presented to the public." Exactly what the extent of "some damage" might be remains unclear, though museum spokesman Harold Holzer told the New York Times that the St. Michael "might have done a flip in the air as it fell, causing it to land relatively flat on its reverse side and sparing it catastrophic harm. "Large pieces, including the archangelís face, were intact," the report goes on, quoting Holzer as saying that the work seemed "eminently restorable."

One hopes that the St. Michael will be successfully repaired sooner than the Adam, which the museum initially said could be restored in "one to two years." Nearly six years after the 2002 accident, the Adam has not been put back on public exhibition.

Glazed, monumental terra-cotta sculpture was first developed by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400-1482), who developed a secret colored glaze that made his works unusually durable, both easily cleaned and impervious to weather and climate. Della Robbia devotional reliefs (and later, whole altarpieces) were less expensive than marble or bronze sculpture, an attribute that greatly increased their popularity. Luca passed the secret process to his talented nephew Andrea, who headed a large workshop producing works for churches and private clients all over Italy.

The Metís collection of glazed terracottas by the della Robbias is one of the finest outside Italy. In addition to two reliefs of the Madonna and Child by Luca, the museum owns several works by Andrea, including two large multi-colored glazed roundels depicting An Allegorical Figure of Prudence and a Head of a Saint or Roman Hero. Both are encircled by a wreath of lifelike greenery and fruits, a design that has become synonymous with the name "della Robbia." A particularly beautiful blue-and-white glazed relief by Andrea of the Madonna and Child with God the Father and Cherubim is solidly wedged in a niche in a stone wall by the admissions desks in the main hall. When the relief was given to the Met by the Edith and Herbert Lehman Foundation in 1969, it was stipulated that it be the first work of art visitors see upon entering the museum.

But the St. Michael is arguably the museumís most important della Robbia. A relatively early work by Andrea much influenced by his Florentine contemporary Andrea del Verrocchio, St. Michael was commissioned ca. 1475 for the church of San Michele Archangelo in Faenza, where it remained till the dismantling of the church ca. 1798. Later owned by the Myron Charles Taylor (1874-1959), a former CEO of United States Steel Corporation and an emissary to the Holy See for Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, it was purchased by the Met for  $40,000 at the Taylor estate sale at Parke-Bernet in New York on Nov. 12, 1960.

Though considered a substantial sum at the time, the droll art-market historian Gerald Reitlinger described it two years later as "rather underpriced, seeing that it cost precisely the same amount as Constantin Brancusiís Blonde Negress, a sort of magnified brass automobile mascot which was sold in the same season and in the same place."


PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.