This terracotta della Robbia portrait of a laureate was made for Poggio Reale, a storied late 15th-century pleasure palace built for Alfonso II, the King of Naples. Started in 1487, this grand villa was described by one contemporary writer as ‘the most delicate and pleasant place... that could be called paradise on Earth.’ Poggio Reale was still unfinished when it was sacked by a rampaging northern army in 1494, and its treasures smashed or stolen.
When this terracotta roundel surfaced in 1902, it was the first time anyone had seen it in more than 400 years. ‘For something as precious and fragile as this to reappear in the New World... sounds like a fairy tale or a movie script,’ admits Decorative Arts Head of Department William Russell Jr. The roundel is now set to be a highlight of Classic Week in New York, where it will be offered in The Exceptional Sale on 28 April.
‘[Poggio Reale] was particularly exciting,’ explains Russell Jr., ‘because it was a collaboration between the Court of Florence and the Court of Naples.’ Lorenzo de’ Medici — ‘the man of Renaissance of Florence’, as the specialist describes him — was particularly involved in the project, working on designs and sending his own architect, Giuliano da Maiano, to Naples. The house was to be a symbol of de’ Medici’s ambitions to assert the glory of Florentine art beyond the city’s walls.
At the time, Andrea della Robbia was one of Florence’s most famous artists. Having dazzled courts throughout Europe with his family’s glazed terracottas, he was selected to provide tiles for the floors of the villa, as well as a series of portraits celebrating the venerable Aragon ancestors and linking them, aesthetically at least, to Antiquity.
‘No one really knows what [the house] looked like because it hadn’t been finished when it was destroyed,’ says Russell Jr., who goes on to describe the ‘Game of Thrones moment’ when Charles VIII of France invaded the Italian peninsula in the autumn of 1494 and swept towards Naples. Alfonso, who had ruled for less than a year, was forced to flee for sanctuary in Sicily.
Even though Poggio Reale so impressed Charles that he persuaded the designers of the gardens to return with him to France, the villa was destroyed and emptied of its treasures. Worse was to come: the destruction of the local aqueduct made the area uninhabitable and the villa and its gardens became battlefields again in the first half of the 16th century and once more in the 20th century, with the three-year Allied bombardment and German occupation of Naples.
‘It never really existed, except in myth,’ reflects the specialist. ‘For 500 years people have written about it — its great treasures and glorious gardens. Miraculously, of all the things to survive, it is something as fragile as this della Robbia terracotta.’
There are only two other surviving della Robbia Laureates, one in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and another in the Louvre. ‘Somewhere between 1494 and 1902, someone really looked after this,’ concludes Russell Jr. ‘We’re really lucky. If you look at the two other examples to survive, they’re badly damaged, whereas this example is in almost perfect condition.’