FROM PISTOIA TO NORWICH: LUCA DELLA ROBBIA’S VISITATION IN AMERICA by Catherine Kupiec
In 2016, the Florentine artist Luca della Robbia’s glazed terracotta Visitation left Italy for the first time. Bound first for Boston and then for Washington, D.C., the sculpture was a star loan in the in the 2016-17 exhibition “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence,” jointly organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Featuring Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the Visitation is an early example of the novel glazed ceramic art invented by Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-82) around 1440 and used by the Della Robbia family of artists for roughly a century. What is more, the Visitation had already debuted, in a way, on the East Coast over one century earlier in the form of several plaster cast copies. The earliest documented copy appeared in 1888 at none other than the Slater Memorial Museum, and it quickly inspired other institutions to follow suit.
Initially this early acclaim might seem surprising for, despite its historical importance, the Visitation is not widely familiar today outside specialist circles. The goal of nineteenth-century American plaster cast collections was to expose the public to a canon of the “best” ancient and contemporary works. How did the Visitation advance this effort? Was it popular at the turn of the century? In pursuing the answer to these questions, new research has uncovered a total of six Visitation casts bought between 1888 and 1909 by prominent East Coast museums, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The story of their acquisition illuminates one way cast collections served the developing field of art history in the United States: namely, by indexing not just a canon of key artworks, but also the state of the latest scholarship on those objects.
Among six examples, the Norwich Visitation occupies a key position. The Slater Memorial Museum functioned as the “gold standard” for turn-of-the-century cast collections and we will see that, together with Boston-based curator Edward Robinson (1858-1931), it formed the epicenter of a professional network that drove other cast purchases. Identifying specific dates for these acquisitions has, moreover, revealed their convergence with renewed scholarly interest in the original Visitation at the turn of the century. Its attribution was uncertain in those years, and in 1894 the American scholar Allan Marquand would assign the work to Luca for the first time (an opinion now accepted unanimously). This essay suggests that a timely encounter with the Norwich cast, whose unattributed status reflected ongoing debates around the original, helped to reinforce Marquand’s growing scholarly interest in the Della Robbia. This led, eventually, to the resolution of its attribution and to numerous foundational publications in this area.
The nineteenth-century story must start, of course, with the original Visitation: a moving two-figure narrative group made around 1445 for the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in the Tuscan city of Pistoia (near Florence). In it, the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, share an embrace of great spiritual importance. Each is unexpectedly pregnant with a child – Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist – who will play a key role in the Christian story of salvation. As Mary greets Elizabeth, John performs his first prophetic act, leaping in his mother’s womb in recognition of Jesus. The aged Elizabeth, at right, falls to her knees, lifting her arms and creased face to Mary; this humble posture externalizes John’s otherwise invisible movement. Luca’s distinctive new sculptural medium, which joined opaque, colored glazes to sensitively modeled terracotta, is well-suited to the subject. It offers an unsparing description of Elizabeth’s lined faced while simultaneously, by virtue of its reflectivity, imbuing the women with holy radiance. Luca had recently perfected the medium, and it proved exceedingly popular from the 1440s on.
Luca soon passed the secrets of his art on to his nephew, Andrea, and ultimately members of the Della Robbia family (and their competitors, the Buglioni family) would use the medium for about a century. The first history of this new art form was written by the eminent art historian Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550 and 1568). Vasari established a key corpus of works by Luca and his heirs, and this offered a crucial starting-point for nineteenth-century scholars. They, in the earliest specialized studies of the Della Robbia, conducted a census of surviving glazed sculptures and sought to individuate an oeuvre for the best-known artists, including Luca and Andrea. Since Vasari had not mentioned the Visitation, scholars relied on stylistic arguments for its attribution. They rejected Pistoian lore crediting it to the hometown painter Fra Paolino and, from at least 1821 onward, favored an unspecified “Della Robbia” artist on the basis of its trademark glazed medium. Della Robbia authorship was uncontested by the final quarter of the century, when some writers – prominent among them the German art historian Wilhelm von Bode – assigned the group more specifically to Andrea della Robbia.
It was in this context that, in June 1888, one Edward Robinson placed an order for a plaster Visitation from Florentine cast-manufacturer Oronzio Lelli. He was acting on behalf of the nascent Slater Memorial Museum, located on the grounds of the Norwich Free Academy, an independent secondary school incorporated in 1854. The museum would open in late 1888 with a core collection of 227 casts of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculptures, plus electrotypes and hundreds of photographs of important artworks. Their purchase was financed by the Norwich industrialist, and prominent alumnus of the academy, William A. Slater (1857-1919). He agreed to give funds for the casts and photographs at the urging of the school’s principal, the Yale-educated classicist Robert Porter Keep (1844-1904). Slater himself had studied art history at Harvard, and, perhaps naturally, found a Boston professional to assemble the cast collection in 1887: The aforementioned Edward Robinson, who was the curator of classical antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and who became the director of that institution in 1902 and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1910. Robinson had played a key role in forming the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ extensive cast collection, and at Norwich he would select all the casts, arranging their purchase and shipping and overseeing their installation in coordination with Robert Porter Keep.
A ledger preserved in the museum’s archives lists the manufacturer, price, and date for each purchase, allowing us to situate the Visitation acquisition within a larger context. Robinson made the order in June 1888 from manufacturer Oronzio Lelli, whose shop specialized in plaster reproductions of Tuscan Renaissance sculptures. Purchased as part of a group of fourteen casts, the work was listed as the “Virgin visiting St. Elizabeth” at a cost of 700 lire (roughly $137), placing it in the top six percent of Lelli’s offerings in terms of price. This order came relatively late in the formation of the collection, just five months before the museum’s November opening (Robinson placed his earliest orders to European retailers in 1887, including one with Lelli). It is possible that Lelli was the exclusive source for Visitation casts during these years, as five of the East Coast casts were made by him. In 1900, when Boston-based firm P.P. Caproni & Brother had begun to sell the cast, it was also one of their costliest, at $150. Thus we might assume that the Visitation appealed especially to larger institutions with bigger budgets.
The first American institutions to own Visitation casts copied an eminent model, namely London’s South Kensington Museum, which bought a cast of the group in 1883 (from Lelli) for their impressive Cast Courts. This purchase at first seems to complement an existing strength of the South Kensington collection for, as part of an effort to inspire modern crafts like pottery, the museum had been buying original Della Robbia sculptures since the 1850s. Yet, surprisingly, an early guide to the collection attributed the Visitation to Fra Paolino, not to the Della Robbia, suggesting that the work appealed on its own aesthetic merits rather than for its Della Robbia paternity. Whatever the case, South Kensington was a major model for American institutions like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where Edward Robinson was employed and whose early collection was mostly casts.
Robinson was a classicist, and he must have appreciated the typological similarity between the Visitation and ancient two-figure narrative casts in the collection, such as the Ludovisi Gaul and his Wife or the Orestes and Electra by Greek sculptor Menelaus. Together with the new curator of the Norwich museum, Henry Watson Kent (1866-1948), he would soon act as a cast collection consultant for other collections, encouraging them to acquire the Visitation. From 1891 to 1895 the men helped to form the enormous cast collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Robinson making the list of desired casts and acting as buying agent, while Kent advised on the installation. The Metropolitan Museum owned a cast of the Visitation by 1895, and the work soon also graced the Corcoran Gallery (1897), the Springfield City Library (1898) and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (1909). At Springfield, Kent had been hired to form the collection ‘under the direction’ of Robinson (whose name also appears in a handwritten curatorial note at the Corcoran). Presumably Robinson also bought the Visitation for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he worked: it was on view by 1895, but the purchase remains undocumented. What is clear, however, is that Robinson’s work in Norwich and New York established a canon of casts that included the Visitation and deeply influenced other American institutions.
If purchases of the cast took wing in the 1890s, scholarship on the original work also heated up in the same years. This happened thanks to one key figure: Allan Marquand (1853-1924), a professor of art history at Princeton. By his death in 1924, Marquand would be the preeminent authority on the Della Robbia and Buglioni families of artists. His first publication in the area, in 1891, came in the very years that concern us, and focused on a glazed altarpiece donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1882 by his father, Henry Gurdon Marquand (a trustee and, later, president of the Metropolitan Museum). The altarpiece, which showed the Assumption of the Virgin, had been attributed to Luca; in his article, Marquand made compelling arguments for its reattribution to Andrea, relying on photographs of other sculptures abroad to make stylistic comparisons. The article marks a turning point: Marquand later claimed it inspired his 1892 trip to Italy to see as many Della Robbia sculptures as possible. So began a life’s work, yielding eight foundational volumes on the artists published between 1912 and 1928 cataloguing over 2,000 works and many new attributions and documents.
One year before his trip to Italy, Marquand encountered the Norwich cast. It was 1891, the year in which he published on the Assumption, and the experience likely reinforced his growing professional interest in the Della Robbia. Marquand visited Norwich as a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Special Committee on Casts (on which Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Stanford White also served). They were to oversee the formation of an extensive collection of plaster reproductions, starting from seed money given by Henry Marquand in 1886. As noted above, their chief consultant was none other than Edward Robinson, who made a tentative buying list (that included the Visitation) with the help of Allan Marquand and another colleague. On May 2, 1891, the committee – including Marquand – rode by rail to Norwich to visit what was then the exemplary American cast museum. There the Visitation stood on view without an attribution, a reflection on its uncertain scholarly status. Marquand doubtless appreciated its potential value as a study tool after using photographs (rather than originals) to make his arguments about the Assumption. The question of another unresolved Della Robbia attribution – posed enchantingly in three dimensions by the cast itself – must have only furthered his resolve to study the originals in person.
The following year, on May 6, 1892, Marquand set sail for Italy where he traveled widely to examine glazed sculptures by the Della Robbia school, including the Pistoia Visitation. In late 1892 he returned and immediately began to publish. His first two articles presented the details of his trip and unpublished works by Luca. Then a third article followed, in early 1894, proposing a new chronological account for Luca’s sculptures of the Virgin. In it, Marquand attributed the Visitation to Luca – for the first time in scholarship – with a production date between 1430 and 1440. His arguments were stylistic, as with the Assumption, but now they were enriched by his study of the original. As witness to its high quality, he cited Wilhelm von Bode’s 1893 claim that the Visitation “in [its] nobility of sentiment, beauty of form and skillfulness of arrangement deserves to be called the most perfect group of the Early Renaissance.” But he disagreed with Bode’s attribution of the work to Andrea and argued the sculpture found better stylistic parallels among Luca’s work. With this and other attributions following his trip, Marquand established himself as a powerful new voice in the field.
After 1894, several Della Robbia experts – with Bode chief among them – accepted the attribution of the Visitation to Luca. Marquand celebrated this fact in an 1895 essay on the artist for specialty magazine The Brickbuilder. In his closing remarks he invoked the very casts that made the Visitation sculpture accessible to American audiences, stating:
“this fine group [the Visitation], which has already aroused admiration in this country from the casts of it in the Boston and Norwich museums and which there stand unattributed, may now be recognized as almost certainly the work of Luca della Robbia.”
Marquand seems, here, to return to the cast that had piqued his interest in this scholarly problem. The popularity it enjoyed, irrespective of attribution, speaks compellingly to its appeal to late-nineteenth century taste. Yet attribution mattered, especially to educators like Marquand who saw the didactic purposes casts could serve in the States where originals were less accessible. In a textbook published one year later, Marquand would claim that, in the absence of the originals, the history of sculpture was best studied with the help of casts and photographs. Casts like the Visitation offered tools by which to train young art historians, and, as a result, needed accurate labels.
When the Visitation attribution faced a final challenge in 1906, Marquand was prepared to respond decisively. That year, Italian scholar Pèleo Bacci published a document of 1445 that described figures of the Virgin and Elizabeth, represented at the Visitation, in the church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia (where Luca’s work resides today). The record did not identify the figures as glazed sculptures, and Bacci, who adamantly opposed an attribution to Luca on stylistic grounds, suggested that it referred to a different image altogether. Marquand quickly dissented, interpreting the record as evidence that Luca della Robbia had made the Visitation by 1445. His reaffirmation of Luca’s authorship has stood the test of time: today scholars accept the sculpture as an important early example of the master’s new glazed art. Incidentally, the final East Coast cast, for the Brooklyn Institute, was bought in 1909; thus the six purchases traced, from 1888 to 1909, neatly frame the years in which Marquand entered and, ultimately, resolved the attribution debate.
In conclusion, the Norwich Visitation cast reminds us of the essential role copies played in making European and Ancient artworks accessible to turn-of-the-century American scholars. Photographs and casts facilitated some of Allan Marquand’s earliest encounters with the Della Robbia and fueled his desire to visit Italy to study the originals. He would, as a result, become the leading international authority on the Della Robbia. The casts also intersected with another emerging phenomenon of the early twentieth century: the arrival of increasing numbers of original Della Robbias on the American art market, where they began to sell at high prices and without reliable attribution. The resultant need for informed and reliable connoisseurship would drive Marquand to publish his first book on the subject, Della Robbias in America, in 1912. Yet casts had arrived in the United States, en masse, even earlier and some, like the Norwich Visitation, foreshadowed the need for correct attribution that became urgent as original sculptures flooded the market. The formation of American collections of Renaissance casts merits further study, particularly in relation to the emergence of the discipline of art history in the United States.
This essay derives from a talk delivered at the 2019 meeting of the Midwest Art History Society. For bibliography and an expanded account of the topic, please see the recent article: Catherine Kupiec, “Copies and Connoisseurship: Luca della Robbia’s Visitation in America, 1888-1909” Sculpture Journal 28, 3 (2019), pp. 381-96.
Catherine Kupiec specializes in Italian art of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, with a focus on sculpture and its materials. Her current book project examines the novel medium of glazed terracotta sculpture developed by Luca della Robbia in the 1430s. Interested in the qualities of color, light, and space in sculpture, as well as the relationship between artistic practice and knowledge as embodied in recipe books and treatises, her recent research has involved hands-on work with clay modeling, glazing, and firing.
Currently Visiting Professor of Art History at Notre Dame, Catherine was previously a visiting professor at the Pennsylvania State University and taught art history and writing courses at Rutgers University. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Florence and in 2015 contributed to research for the first major Della Robbia exhibition in the United States, “Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence” (Boston and Washington, D.C., 2016-2017). She has published on the relationship between light and glazed sculpture, and on late nineteenth-century plaster casts of Luca della Robbia’s works in the United States. Catherine received her B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, and M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers University.