Trifecta AND the Powerball

September 27, 2012 / Art & Archaeology
Radicofani, Tuscany
Frankly, if you were in the area for a drive in the countryside, you would likely be heading to Radicofani just because. It dominates the Val d’Orcia and beckons those with no destination in mind and a whole day to get there to just head up the hill for curiosity’s sake.

Great choice! 270 deg views of picture perfect Tuscan countryside from the park-benched giardinetti (lit., little gardens). Just stunning.

And ok, while you’re at it you stroll into the (very small) medieval town.. nice. And you duck into the very early medieval Romanesque church too, right? Might as well, you’re here now.

Ohh.. nice and cool. Mm-hm. Nice little church. Ohh, look at that.. hmm. Looks like a.. wait. Wow! And there’s another one! Are those..!? OMG, there’re THREE of ’em!! WHAT THE HE..?!

At this point you’re biting your tongue. You are in a church after all. Except your mental Renaissance artwork probability distribution graph just imploded from not one but THREE data points so far left field that you’ve already sunk into a funk yet are simultaneously exhilarated. “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite,” indeed.

See, most Della Robbia’s are roundels, often featuring a Madonna with a cherub or two thrown in, on the house. During the Renaissance, the family cranked ’em out by the boatload for close to 150 years. Wealthier patrons, however, would instead commission larger pieces, which are thus rarer and are often set into altars.

However, the three Della Robbia’s here are enormous, maybe 6′ x 8′. The central one actually IS the altar (the two at the end of each lateral nave are just as big.) They’re so big that the multiple car-door sized polychrome ceramic slabs are fitted together like huge jigsaw puzzles. And no lovely but lonesome Madonne here. These suckers are CROWDED! Phalanxes of harking heralds, support Angels and jostling Apostles. The altar piece alone used up that year’s quota of cherub heads, and it actually features perspective (all the rage in paintings at the time) but unique for a Della Robbia, meaning for any ceramic piece from that period.

Throw in all the usual colorful Della Robbia framing fruit and vine decorations, and after marveling at the intricacy and beauty for some time you head out, happy to have seen so much in one place.

Except on your way out in a niche by the door you notice a full, free standing sculpture, maybe 4′ high, of a Madonna. Turns out that’s a Della Robbia too. (As far as I know the only ceramic Della Robbia sculpture – as opposed to bas relief – that exists. If anyone knows otherwise, please speak up.)



by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

22 Responses to “Trifecta AND the Powerball”

  1. Taube Ponce

    Thanks so much for sharing these moments of beauty and discovery with us – brightened my work day!

  2. Harvey-Jane Kowal

    You’ve been drinking too much coffee, my friend. This is your most exciting piece in a long time–totally fun and fabulous!

  3. Evanne

    Thanks, dear GB. We visited there several years ago, and although the town was lovely and full of magnificent churches, what I remember most was the terrible climb up to the town. If you go, be sure to have good shoes and plenty of energy for the climb! It’s worth the effort, all the same.

  4. Alex Cicchinelli

    GB, Nice photos, sounds great. They seem extravagant as those captured in the Bargello. Spare us the emphasis on literary style, I prefer your natural patter. Alex

  5. Thank you for the article on Radicofani. My husband and I are always looking for places to see beautiful works by the Della Robbia family and we will make sure to visit on our next trip to the area. And, actually, we have seen outstanding Della Robbia statues in the city of Foiano della Chiana. Here, five churches comprise what can be described as a Della Robbia museum of both outstanding altarpieces and statues. The churches must be visited with a guide which can be arranged through links from the town’s web site. The church of Santa Maria della Fraternita has a beautiful shrine over the main altar with a statue of the Madonna and Child by Andrea della Robbia on a model by his uncle, Luca. In the church of San Francesco is a Crucifixion scene consisting of nine life-sized, free standing statues – the Holy Women group and Christ crucified and angel – by Fra Ambrogio della Robbia. In addition to the outstanding Della Robbia altarpieces and statues, there are numerous works of art in the churches that are worth seeing. Foiano is an easy drive from Cortona, Siena and Arezzo.

    • GB

      Patricia, thanks for sharing that. Didn’t know that Foiano had so many… I now have a new destination!

  6. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    Thanks GB! I am definitely going to weave my way up there some nice sunny autumn day.

  7. Toni Galli Sterling

    Salve GB,
    What a treat! Thank you for your prose and enthusiastic love for all things Italian….especially the art! (Italia is peppered with more stand alone statues by this glorious famiglia).

  8. Gian Banchero

    On the side of my house I have nailed up a perfect cement replica of a Della Robbia Madonna and Child (imported from Italy), even though a cold gray it furnishes a wonderful warmth and magic, I look at it everyday with wonder and often feel as though Della Robbia is personally speaking to me through the ages.

  9. Grazie mille, GB, for sharing these beautiful masterpieces! My mother was a Della Robbia fan and I, too, have a lovely Madonna and child replica with the traditional colorful frame of fruit that she treasured. I appreciate it so much more after seeing these as well as many in Florence.

  10. ItalianNotebook is on a roll! Thanks Kate for pointing out another Della Robbia statue. Aren’t they amazing? And thanks to GB for getting it going.

  11. Kate McCluer

    If anyone wants to see the Luca della Robbia “Visitation” group, I forgot to say that its “home” is the Romanesque church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas in Pistoia.

  12. Rosanne Barrett

    GB: Very nice information, but “these suckers…”? Please!

  13. Mary Jo Kolb

    Grazie molto for sharing these “secrets” with us all. My husband and I just returned from several weeks in Italy, and one of the highlights of our trip was a day’s visit to Radicofani and La Foce. We likely would never have taken the road to Radicofani and found these incredible Della Robbia masterpieces (nor known to take a second look at the exquisite free-standing madonna stature) without your passing this along. Can’t wait to return to beautiful Italy to explore more such hidden gems.


Leave a Reply