The close connection that linked Barga and Florence for centuries has deeply influenced the history, art and culture of Barga. This can still be seen today, for example, in the special architectural design of some buildings and in the many works of art.
Certainly the most refined and enchanting in the latter category are the so-called “Della Robbia Terracotta Works”, glazed polychrome terracotta works made using a technique developed by Luca Della Robbia in 1440 in Florence.
The technique of the Della Robbia workshop consisted essentially in creating a terracotta relief that was then coated with very bright polychrome ceramics. The basic colours are typically blue and white, with the addition of other colours such as yellow, green, turquoise, brown and black.
From the mid-fifteenth century the technique was extraordinarily successful at all levels: from the upper bourgeoisie, to the great monastic orders, from the guilds to the hospitals, even up to the “popular” class, with relatively cheap products created with the aid of moulds and often used for personal worship, such as tabernacles. The Madonna and Child series were particularly successful and widespread.
In Barga you can admire many glazed terracotta works, most of which have been attributed to the Della Robbia workshop, while others were probably created by their ‘rivals’, the Buglioni.
The first place to visit if you want to see and appreciate these wonderful works is definitely the Church of San Francesco located near Barga’s hospital. Inside the church there are five works: three altarpieces (Stigmata of Saint Francis, Nativity, Assumption) and two statues (Saint Andrew, Saint Anthony the Abbot).
Stigmata of Saint Francis Altarpiece
This altarpiece depicts the stigmata of Saint Francis, which occurred when he withdrew to Verna, an isolated village near Arezzo.
The artist’s representation of Francis, among the rocks of Verna, is particularly intense precisely because of the Passion of Christ that Francis embodied.
This work depicts the classic motif of the Nativity of Christ and along side the Holy Family we can see St. Jerome (next to Joseph) and the Franciscan monk Michele Turignoli from Barga (next to Maria).
Above, two angels play the flute while a third holds the scroll of music for the Gloria. Below, in the predella, there is the risen Christ between Mary and St. John and, at the sides, four figures in prayer: St. Anthony of Padua (left), St. Bernardine of Siena (right) and two lay people (perhaps the patrons of the work).
This work represents the assumption of Our Lady into heaven, the Virgin giving the girdle to Saint Thomas in the company of Saints Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, Bernardine of Siena and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio with a marble tomb in the centre with white lilies.
The Madonna is above sitting on a throne surrounded by an oval of small heads of angels with light brown wings. The scene is completed with a host of musical angels on clouds.
Statue of Saint Andrew the Apostle
In this sculpture the Della Robbia artist presents an elegant gentleman with lively, wise eyes.
In his hands he is holding a book and (maybe) a cross. The glaze, as always, brings out the finest elements of the sculpture and the colours.
Statue of Saint Anthony the Abbot
The Della Robbia artist demonstrates his genius with this statue of Saint Anthony depicted as a kind of fairly modern monk.
The priestly figure has little hair and a long beard. Two brown eyes seem to scrutinize the viewer while the tunic under the coat is in brown sheepskin, the same type of fur with which he wanted to be buried as a sign of his vow of poverty. The artist therefore proves that he has studied the life of the saint.
Now we go inside the walls of Barga and pass under the arch of the main gate: Porta Mancianella (or Reale). As you enter the castle of Barga, look back to admire another terracotta work positioned precisely in the peak of the archway inside Porta Reale.
We resume the journey to discover the Della Robbia terracotta works of Barga along the road that goes up to our right (Via del Pretorio). We continue along this road until we glimpse the ramp up to the Duomo of Barga and on our right we find the Conservatory of Saint Elizabeth and its adjacent church. Inside there are two wonderful works by Della Robbia.
Madonna and Child
This Madonna is in a style recognizable as that of Giovanni Della Robbia.
The artist embeds the Madonna and Child in a bundle of green leaves and fruit bound by a blue cord, where the strength of the colour, including the blue background, exalts the forms.
Madonna of the Girdle
The Virgin is holding a green girdle with yellow tassels and sits upon a throne of clouds enclosed in a yellow oval borne by seven angels.
Below there are Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Elizabeth of Hungary, Francis of Assisi, the Archangel Michael and Anthony of Padua. As was the custom in Florence at the time, even the Buglioni family copied the Della Robbia style.
Finally it is time to visit the focal point of the history, culture and art of Barga: the Cathedral of Saint Christopher. The imposing building, unique in its kind, contains within it many works of art including three works of glazed terracotta works, all positioned in the apse chapel: an Adoration of the Child, a ciborium for holy oils and a large terracotta work depicting the Madonna and child with Saints Sebastian and Roch (incomplete work).
Adoration of the Child
It is one of the oldest Della Robbia acquisitions of Barga. In the work the Child is adored by four praying angels.
The frame is a garland of flowers and fruit, three cherubs and a shelf with a cherub and a cornucopia with leaves and fruit.
Ciborium for holy oils
This work is inspired by the tabernacle by Desiderio da Settignano that can be found in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, although this ciborium was never used for the Eucharist, if anything it may have been used for the Holy Oils.
It consists of a ciborium with curtain-bearing angels, between two angels holding candles. In the lunette there is the Child Jesus giving a blessing surrounded by little praying angels.
Another almost identical copy (but worse preserved and with several pieces missing) can be found in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, confirming the fact that the terracotta works were made using moulds.
Madonna and Child between Saints Sebastian and Roch
The work is incomplete and was originally located in the outer cloister of the Convent of Saint Francis, before being moved to its current location in 1936.
There is no definite information about the author, but it seems to have been made around 1527-28 when the plague raged and works depicting Saint Roch and Saint Sebastian were more common. At the centre stands the Madonna: in her right hand she holds a book while her left hand (missing) would have held the Child, unfortunately also missing.
Our itinerary to visit the Della Robbia terracotta works of Barga has come to an end, but there is actually still a place you should visit! As you leave the Duomo of Barga, turn right and, at the far end of the large green lawn, you will find the Palazzo del Podesta, the former residence of the Florentine governors in Barga. It now houses the ‘A. Mordini’ Civic Museum: visit it to find out more about how these beautiful terracotta works were created.
– sources, Wikipedia (voice, terracotta invetriata) and Pensieri di contemplazione, S. Baldisseri, Barga, Centro studi francescani, 2009
– photo by: Massimo Pia