Italian Terracotta Sculpture

Through their masterful control of material and a superb sense of artistry, Italian sculptors have explored the versatility of terracotta to create some of the most alluring and expressive sculptures in the history of art.

A history of terracotta

'Modelling in clay is to the sculptor what drawing on paper is to the painter… In the soft clay the genius of the artist is seen in its utmost purity and truth…'
Johann Joachi, Winckelmann, History of Art, 1776

Clay is an inexpensive and abundant material that has been used since ancient times to make bricks, tiles, pottery, and ritual objects. When fired, clay becomes terracotta, or 'baked earth'.

In the hands of Donatello and his contemporaries in early 15th-century Italy, terracotta became a fundamental medium of artistic expression and creativity, and remained so until the age of Antonio Canova in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Skill in handling clay became a requirement at art academies across Europe; the development of new technologies fed the demand for clay sculpture, and clay models took on a central role in portraiture and relief sculpture. Clay was essential to the creative process of sculpture during this period.

Origins: The Ghiberti-Donatello style

The potential of using clay to reproduce devotional images was first recognised by two of the leading sculptors in early 15th-century Florence. Lorenzo Ghiberti ran a large workshop while making bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery. He trained most of the leading sculptors, and the young Donatello, who became the most influential sculptor of the period, also spent time there. The use of clay was central to the production of bronzes and Ghiberti recognised its versatility. Clay could be moulded to replicate images which were then fired, painted and gilded, providing a cheap alternative to more expensive materials, such as marble and bronze.

The Virgin and Child was a popular theme, which found classic expression in the works of Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Donatello's interest was in combining different materials, while Luca adapted pottery glazes to produce more durable and vibrant surfaces. This innovative technique was described by the famous painter and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, as 'a new, useful and most beautiful art'.


© Katie Eilidh MacDonald Paul, all rights reserved