A Glazed Terracotta Sculpture by Buglioni

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto | Glazed terracotta (68-1/2 x 37-3/4 inches), about 1510-20 | Benedetto Buglioni | Italian, Florence, 1461-1521 | The Cleveland Museum of Art, | Gift of J.H. Wade  1921.1180 Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Francis and Giovanni Gualberto | Glazed terracotta (68-1/2 x 37-3/4 inches), about 1510-20 | Benedetto Buglioni | Italian, Florence, 1461-1521 | The Cleveland Museum of Art, | Gift of J.H. Wade 1921.1180

Benedetto Buglioni, scultore fiorentino del XV secolo, si formò nella bottega di Andrea della Robbia, da cui apprese varie tecniche di smaltatura di terracotta invetriata fino a svilupparne una più veloce e meno finita che gli permise di abbassare i costi della produzione di ceramica smaltata assicurandosi così importanti commissioni. La maggior parte delle sue opere sono sculture in terracotta, tra cui la pregevole Madonna in Trono con il bambino tra San Francesco e Sant'Antonio Abate, appartenente alla collezione del Museo d’Arte di Cleveland. Oltre che per la pregevolezza dell’esecuzione, il pezzo – che risale agli anni tra il 1510 ed il 1520 – si distingue  anche per l’invidiabile stato di conservazione e la brillantezza dei colori.  

As a material, terracotta, or baked clay, was popular in Antiquity, but little-used during the Middle Ages. Italian sculptors preferred marble and bronze, ancient materials revered for their appearance, monumentality and permanency. During the early 1400s, however, this changed. Italy's prosperous cities saw a large increase in public and private commissions for sculpture intended for private homes and chapels, tabernacles (receptacles for the Eucharist), street facades of houses, and public buildings. To meet this rising demand, artists began to increasingly execute sculpture  in materials that were easily worked, quick to produce and less costly than marble or bronze. The most common of these materials was terracotta; wet clay, modeled by hand, and fired in a kiln until hard. From the 1420s onwards, terracotta found increasing favor with Italian sculptors, particularly those in the city of Florence where numerous innovations were made in the modeling and coloring of this material. 

An especially beautiful example of this form of sculpture in which Florentine artists excelled may be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is an arched relief sculpture, about 70 inches in height, representing the Madonna and Child flanked by two monastic saints and probably dating to about 1510 to 1520. Above, in the blue semi-circular space representing the sky and heaven are three cherubim who gaze adoringly at the Christ Child below. The sculpture was made by Benedetto Buglioni (1461-1521), an artist who specialized in terracottas and learned his craft in the studios of the Della Robbia family of Florence. Buglioni was born in Florence, son of another sculptor, Giovanni di Bernardo. In the early 1480s, Buglioni and his brother opened their own studio and jointly worked on a number of commissions for various churches in the area. These include works for the Church of Ognissanti, the church of San Pietro in Radicofani and the Church of Santa Lucia a Settimello in Calenzano. Buglioni, next to the Della Robbia, was the most important artist of glazed terracotta reliefs in Florence and Tuscany at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century. Probably trained by Andrea del Verrocchio, he worked for a time in the Della Robbia studios, and also was deeply influenced by Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino. His patrons included the Medici and other important aristocratic families and government institutions. Buglioni's high standing is also indicated by the fact that he served on the committee that decided upon the placement of Michelangelo's “David.”

On our sculpture, the figure standing to the left of the Madonna is clearly St. Francis (1181-1226), founder of the beloved order of friars that bears his name. He is easily identifiable by his stigmata, the five marks corresponding to Christ’s wounds, and by his brown-gray habit with knotted girdle. The monastic figure on the right is more problematical. He had long been considered to be St. Anthony Abbot, but recent research by the museum has now revealed him to be St. Giovanni Gualberto (995-1073). His distinctive staff and crucifix confirm his identification as founder of the Order of Vallumbrosian monks. St. John adopted the Rule of Saint Benedict but added greatly to its austerity and penitential character. Severe scourging was inflicted for any breach of rule, silence was perpetual, poverty most severely enforced. The rule of enclosure was so strict that the monks were not permitted to leave even on an errand of mercy. The Vallumbrosian monks did not perform manual work, but were intended to be pure contemplatives.

The Cleveland sculpture is stunning for its excellent condition and vibrant colors, the result of a difficult glazing technique. Florence's most prestigious family of terracotta sculptors, the della Robbia, is best known for this technical innovation; the use of vitreous glazes (surface coatings fused by firing in a kiln) to color sculptures modeled in terracotta. A highly porous material, unglazed terracotta is generally unsuitable for outdoor use. The colorful glazes of Luca della Robbia (1400-1482) made his terracotta sculptures impervious to moisture and therefore durable in outdoor architectural settings. From the 1440s to the 1460s, Luca executed a large number of glazed terracottas, particularly Madonna reliefs and colorful medallion coats of arms, which to this day still abound on Florentine exteriors and in museums throughout the world. Luca’s terracottas, beautifully glazed, were also in demand for interior decoration. In the Medici study within the Palazzo Medici, for example, the vaulted ceiling was decorated with a set of 12 medallions from Luca’s studio dating back to 1450-56. The medallions illustrated the labors of the month and were beautifully decorated in blue and white glazes. Luca's nephew, Andrea (1434-1525), inherited the workshop and with it his uncle's secret technique of vitreous glazing. Andrea introduced the virtual mass production of terracotta sculpture in Florence with his five sons, one of whom, Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529), eventually headed the workshop. Benedetto Buglioni learned the technique of vitreous glazing in Andrea’s studio, from which he developed his own characteristics. The blue undertone and extensive use of purple, for example, are very typical of Buglioni’s color palette.

The original location of the Cleveland terracotta is not known, however, it likely stood outdoors. The colorful glazed clay could withstand climate changes far better than a painting or fresco, and the colors do not fade in the sun. Newly discovered documents prove that in 1749 this work was in a chapel open to the elements in the hill town of Ponte agli Stolli, outside of Florence, near sites associated with the Vallumbrosian monks. The two shields at the base of our sculpture have been identified as those of the Borgherini, a wealthy and patrician Florentine family active as art patrons in the 1500s. Our terracotta altarpiece must have been commissioned by this family, and the specific choice of saints, Francis and Giovanni Gualberto, must have been made with a particular location in mind. Unfortunately, the original placement of the sculpture is unknown. It may have served as a devotional shrine in a palazzo’s exterior courtyard. That it survives in such wonderful condition is a testimony to Buglioni and the Florentine artists who mastered the vitreous glazing of terracotta.