Designed and created by Luca della Robbia circa 1445, The Visitation depicts a so-called mystery of faith. It is the visit of Mary, pregnant with Christ, to the household of her cousin Elizabeth, who at an advanced age, is herself pregnant -- with St. John the Baptist. As the story goes, upon the sight of Mary, Elizabeth felt a leap in her womb as the unborn John acknowledged the presence of the Son of God.
The Visitation usually resides in the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia. Like the virgin birth, the elderly Elizabeth's pregnancy, and the fetus John's awareness, it's something of a miracle that Italy has allowed this piece, along with five others, to travel here or anywhere, in the first place. It's miraculous, too, that the colors of the glazes have not faded in more than five centuries. That's because of Luca's invention, a recipe that called for percentages of tin and lead much higher than were used for glazes that have not held up.
Interestingly, Luca chose an ethereal, creamy, monochrome white for the nearly life-size Visitation. It seems exactly right for depicting the moment shared by these two holy women. But nothing except polychrome would have sufficed for the monumental Resurrection of Christ, designed and created by Luca's nephew Giovanni della Robbia circa 1520. Bunches of plump purple grapes are prominent among the shiny green garlands and rough-skinned, oversize lemons that frame the massive (11-foot long) lunette of the risen Jesus. It was commissioned by a member of the winemaking Antinori family for the entrance of a country house outside Florence. Constructed of 46 separate parts held together only with friction, no pins or adhesives, the tableau features angels in flowing azure blue dresses as well as a saintly figure, hands clasped in prayer, identified as a mere mortal, an Antinori marchese.
A representative of the family's 26th generation, the charming Alessia Antinori (b. 1975), was a guest at the preview. "I always say that wine and art are related, because wine is art," Ms. Antinori said. Her ancestors sold the piece in the late 19th century to a grand-touring New Yorker, A. Augustus Healy, who donated it in 1898 to the Brooklyn Institute, now the Brooklyn Museum. The present-day Antinoris helped pay for the conservation of the relief for this exhibition.
This type of art was produced and in high demand from about 1430-1440 to 1550, said Dr. Marietta Cambareri, the show's curator, as she called our attention to the lifelike quality of the portraits, particularly the children and adolescents. In their day, they were often described as "almost seeming to breathe," she told us. I found that quality very much apparent and uncanny in Bust of a Young Boy, the work of Andrea della Robbia circa 1475. On loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, it must have taken as its model a simple Italian ragazzi. His parted lips, the curls on his forehand, and his eyes that look away in temporary innocence comprise an expression of another kind of miracle, the secular mystery of human life itself.
This show travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after its Boston run. Highly recommended to my fellow Bostonians.