Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Bust of a young boy
  • Creator: Andrea della Robbia, sculptor
  • Description:

    This glazed terracotta bust was created by Andrea della Robbia ca. 1475-1480 and was produced in Florence at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The bust depicts a young boy, perhaps around the age of three or four. The child’s carefully crafted expression and slightly parted lips lend an air of life and animation to the sculpture. It is not entirely clear if the portrait depicts an actual child, a young Jesus Christ, or his cousin, John the Baptist, or some blending of these.

    Regardless, the sculpture shows an increased interest and investment in depicting the lives of children, which came about in part from new aesthetic ideals of the Italian Renaissance including an admiration of antique representations of Eros. There were also social factors relating to the impact of plague. The 1348 outbreak was referred to by chroniclers as the "children's plague" and its recurring waves took a heavy toll on families. Miller argues that these losses of children followed by a rebound in the fifteenth century shifted the demographics and prompted a new attention and understanding of the young. Many kinds of Italian domestic objects, from birth trays to portraits, presented carefully observed little boys as studies in innocence, embodiments of vitality, and much-desired hopes for the future.

    Sculptures like this were typically commissioned by a father, often both to represent a family’s future legacy and to celebrate the return home of a child from time spent with a wet nurse. Typically, infants of prosperous families were put in the care of women who breast-fed them; the infant lived in the wet nurse's home, usually in the countryside, and was separated from their kin until they turned two or three. Occasionally, wet nurses lived in their clients' homes, but still did the majority of the caretaking. Wet nursing was a common practice for Italian families, in part because it restored wives' fertility more quickly, allowing them to bear more children. While some Italian Renaissance thinkers encouraged mothers to raise their infants themselves, this notion was met with resistance by Italian families.

    The sculpture of the boy was completed using a particular technique developed by Luca della Robbia, tin-glazed terracotta, which was hailed as a masterful invention in its time. The glaze produced a shiny surface that idealized the features and enhanced the colors of the clothing. This technique also introduced an affordable variety of art, as clay and paints were inexpensive and readily available. Owning a della Robbia was not only a privilege for the rich, since the value of the art rested more on the skill of the artist than on the material from which it was made. The durable nature of terracotta also made it perfect for country homes and the outdoors, where damp conditions were inhospitable to frescoes or painted panels. Additionally, molds allowed popular pieces to be reproduced with remarkable consistency, typically without the intervention of the master of the workshop. Sculptures were displayed around the home, often in bed-chambers or over wash basins, decorating chimneys, and doorways. Sculptures of young girls were less commonly commissioned, though it was not unheard of.

  • Source: flickr
  • Rights: Photo by William, August 6, 2017. Creative Commons 2.0 license.
  • Subject (See Also): Boys Children Family Portraits Sculpture
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1475
  • Related Work: View of the back of the bust.
    Andrea della Robbia, Bust of a young girl, in private hands.
    Andrea della Robbia, Bust of a young woman, 1465-70, Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Luca della Robbia, Head of a young man, circa 1445, Museo Civico Gaetano Filangieri, Naples.
  • Current Location: Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, nventario Robbie, n. 75
  • Original Location: Florence, Ospedale di S. Maria Nuova
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Sculptures; Terracotta
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Clay; Paints; Tin-glaze;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 33/30/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence. Edited by Marietta Cambareri. Museum of Fine Arts, 2016;
    Miller, Stephanie R. "A Material Distinction: Fifteenth-century Tin-glazed Terracotta Portraits in Italy." Sculpture Journal 22, 1 (2013): 7-20;
    Miller, Stephanie R. "Parenting in the Palazzo: Images and Artifacts of Children in the Italian Renaissance Home." The Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior, 1400–1700: Objects, Spaces, Domesticities. Edited by Erin J. Campbell, Stephanie R. Miller and Elizabeth Carroll Consavari. Ashgate, 2013. Pages 67-88;
    Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. Art, Marriage and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace. Yale University Press, 2008.