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Dozens of priceless Della Robbia sculptures on view at National Gallery

Andrea della Robbia. "Prudence," ca. 1475 glazed terra cotta. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and /National Gallery of Art)

Not far from the entrance to the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition of sculpture by the Della Robbia workshop and its competitors is a bust of Lorenzo de Medici, a powerful 15th-century arts patron and a despot who ruled Renaissance Florence by influence and stratagem. The artist who created this painted terra cotta likeness — full of demonic energy and stone-cold competence — used similar materials but a very different technique than the Della Robbia artists.

The Medici bust is made of fired clay that was then painted, producing an almost oily approximation of human skin, similar in appearance and general creepiness to a wax sculpture. The Della Robbia technique involved firing the clay twice, the second time with glazes that produced a smooth, shiny, opaque and often brilliant palette of white, blue, green, yellow and purple. The process was discovered by Luca della Robbia, a talented sculptor in marble and bronze who turned his energies to glazed terra cotta sometime around 1440, with striking success.

Luca the elder, who lived to be over 80 years old, invited his long-lived nephew Andrea into the business, and Andrea’s children continued the family tradition, some of them in France, well into the middle of the 16th century. Glazed terra cotta was made into free-standing sculptures in the round relief panels that could be hung on a wall, free-standing figurines, flat plaques sturdy enough to be placed outdoors, and small household objects that were affordable to a wide range of consumers. The passion for this material lasted about a century, until the works went out of style around 1550.

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Anyone who has visited Florence knows the Della Robbia look, especially the rich cerulean blue and fine-porcelain whites of the early pieces by Luca and Andrea. More colors were added as different members of the family expanded the range and ambition of the shop, responding in particular to the styles and expressive language of contemporary painters. But there is a habit of putting the Della Robbia family production into a neat little box, separating their work from the mainstream of Italian Renaissance art as not quite fully sculpture such as those that Michelangelo would produce, nor as expressive or fine as paintings by Filippo Lippi, Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto or Leonardo da Vinci — all of whom may have influenced or inspired Della Robbia designers.

The same thing happens when visiting American museums, where one often encounters a stray Della Robbia piece in the Renaissance galleries. The eye notes its presence with pleasure, but rarely engages with it as deeply as with other works of the period. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the longer history of glazed ceramics, the tchotchke effect of associating cheap figurines from lesser antique stores with these early and often magisterial essays in the form. Even Michelangelo, who considered sculpture proper to be about the removal of material to find form rather than the building up and modeling characteristic of working with clay, disparaged the medium.

But much of our condescension has to do with something that this exhibition now remedies: the lack of context for the work, and the opportunity to see the full range of what the Della Robbia artists and their competitors produced. This exhibition, which opens Sunday and is billed as the first major U.S. show devoted to Della Robbia, began in Boston and features some 40 works, across the full range of what was made. Above a door frame in the main corridor of the National Gallery’s West Building is a spectacular lunette by Giovanni Della Robbia, showing the Resurrection of Christ; outside the entrance to the exhibition, in protective cases, are smaller statuettes that demonstrate how powerfully these works can speak at a more domestic scale, including a touching bust of a boy by Andrea, whose depictions of children are exceptional among artists of the age.

But it’s in the first room of the exhibition proper that you encounter the full continuum of artistic expression and decorative functionality that is one of the most difficult facts to process for modern audiences grappling with the Renaissance. On the walls are two coats of arms, which weren’t exactly mass-produced, but were made in great numbers, with purchasers requesting their institution’s logo or insignia as a custom order, and then adding to it standard moldings or decorative garlands to fancy it up. The use of ceramic molds, the easy workability and the relative cheapness of clay, meant that glazed terra cotta was an accessible, durable, mass-market form. But these two functional works keep company with what is a masterpiece in the medium, a masterpiece by any definition in any age: Luca della Robbia’s “The Visitation,” made around 1445 for a church in Pistoia, not far from Florence.

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Assembled from four pieces, “The Visitation” depicts a standard scene for artists of the day, the story of the Virgin Mary’s encounter with her older cousin Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant. The older woman kneels in front of Mary, who looks down tenderly and embraces her kinswoman, who is bearing St. John the Baptist. Luca’s depiction of the women, rendered in white, is deeply touching, and the impact is only heightened by the drama embedded in the construction of the statues. Fired in four pieces and expertly fitted together, the two forms divide the embracing arms and hands so that Mary’s hands are attached to the sleeves of Elizabeth’s dress, and Elizabeth’s hands encircle the back of Mary’s gown. When they’re placed next to each other, you hardly notice the gap between the arms and hands; but even if separated, each woman bears the impress of the other, as if the moment of their greeting has bound them together for eternity, no matter the vicissitudes of the four pieces of terra cotta over the years.

There are more, almost equally powerful moments in the unfolding of the show. Visitors will grapple with how color impacts the power of these forms. If you want Della Robbia to express a classicizing purity — like blue-and-white Wedgewood china — then the push toward chromatic verisimilitude is unnerving. But as the workshop continued to keep up with fashions and changing markets, that was the direction it took, with unglazed clay standing in for skin, and a profusion of colors and details aiming at the narrative and dramatic power of painting. A set of three saints from around 1550, by Santi Buglioni (who headed a competing shop that also made glazed terra cotta), is presented as the “swan song” of the form, a late tour de force that captures the veins in their hands and the crow’s feet around their eyes, creating an ensemble of charismatic and passionate forms that are also slightly terrifying in their zeal. A tabernacle from the 1470s, with a small metal door for the sacramental bread in the center, creates a genuinely illusionist architectural space, with two angels present on both sides.

Finally, the exhibition ends with the figure of an adoring angel, reminiscent of Leonardo, made by Luca della Robbia the Younger, around 1510 or 1515. The designers have placed this figure inside a gallery otherwise devoted to painting, emphasizing the Della Robbia connection to other artists, and how far the shop had come since Luca’s early designs in white and blue. It depicts an androgynous and youthful male face in profile, set beneath lush curls of hair cascading down to his shoulders.

Not everything made in glazed terra cotta rose to this level. But this exhibition leaves no doubt that the best of the work made during this century of production is among the most compelling art in any form from the 15th and 16th centuries.

Della Robbia: Sculpting With Color in Renaissance Florence Sunday through June 4 at the National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215.