The 'Stemma', or coat of arms of René of Anjou (1409–80) was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1861, a few years after it had been removed from a villa at Montughi near Florence, which had previously belonged to the Pazzi family.
Although unrecorded in contemporary documents, this enamelled terracotta relief is unanimously accepted as a work by Luca della Robbia, executed for Jacopo de' Pazzi some time between 1466 and 1478. Measuring eleven feet (3.35 metres) in diameter, the monumental scale of the 'Stemma' was dictated by its original position, high on an outside wall of the villa. As a result of its age and removal from its original position the work is cracked in many places and has been repaired with plaster.
The centre of the roundel depicts a shield bearing the arms of René of Anjou. Quarterly of five, three in chief and two base, they are (from top left to bottom right) Kingdom of Hungary (Ancient), Anjou-Naples, Kingdom of Jerusalem, Duchy of Anjou and Duchy of Bar. Over-all is superimposed the escutcheon in pretence for the Kingdom of Aragon. Above the shield is a crowned helmet surmounted with the crest of a double fleur-de-lys between a pair of dragon's wings.
Behind the helmet and shield is a mantle decorated with the arms of Anjou. Above the crest the letters IR in tree-trunk capitals refer to René's christian name and that of his second wife, Jeanne de Laval. Below the shield is the insignia of René's own chivalric Order of the Crescent ('Croissant'), a collar enscribed OS:EN:CROISSANT:.
On either side appears a flaming brazier, a symbol common both to René and the Pazzi family. The base of the left-hand brazier is decorated with the crosslets of the Pazzi arms. From the inner handles of the braziers hangs a scroll with René's motto :DARDANT:DESIR:.
Around the centre runs a decorative border within which is recessed a garland of fruit. Its circular form suggests a wreath, which has honourific and commemorative associations appropriate to the function of the 'Stemma'. In a similar way, portraits or coats of arms on Quattrocento medals were sometimes set within wreaths. However, this garland is not composed of laurel, but of seven different types of fruit, each tied in four bunches. They are: pine-cones, pears, lemons or oranges, quinces, figs, grapes and cucumbers.
In Renaissance works of art fruit and vegetables were often used for purely decorative purposes, as in Luca's 'Stemma' of the Mercanzia at Or San Michele. They could also serve a wide variety of emblematic functions, as in Luca's frieze in the chapel of the Madonna at Impruneta, where bunches of grapes, citrons and quinces were symbolic respectively of the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary and the Resurrection.
As emblematic and decorative requirements overlapped and as the same image could often be symbolically interpreted in several different ways, it is sometimes difficult to be sure that an iconographic significance was intended by the artist.
In the 'Stemma' of René of Anjou, the fruits can all be iconographically related to a single coherent theme, which appears to justify a symbolic interpretation of their significance. Quince, pine-cones and pears are all symbols of Virtue. Grapes, figs and quince can signify Resurrection. Oranges or lemons and figs can suggest Salvation. On another level, pine-cones serve as a symbol of Immortality and quince denotes Immortal Virtue. Although the cucumber has some negative connotations, it is often iconographically interchangeable with the gourd, symbolic of Resurrection and Salvation. It therefore seems likely that the fruit was intended to allude to the theme of Virtue and its just reward: Resurrection, Salvation and Immortality.
Such general but positive symbolism is quite appropriate to the assertive purpose of a coat of arms. One may check this interpretation by comparison with two further 'semme', also commissioned from Luca della Robbia by Jacopo de' Pazzi. These depict the arms of Pazzi himself and those of his wife, Maddalena de' Serristori.
The decorative borders of these reliefs are composed of the same fruits as appear in that of the 'Stemma' of René of Anjou, except that quince, figs and pears have been deleted and apples added. The significance of this new addition is consistent with the theme outlined here, as the apple can also symbolise Salvation.
Enamelled terracotta sculpture was produced by a technique very similar to that used since at least the 14th century by Italian ceramicists in the making of glazed pottery. Although Luca della Robbia cannot be credited with the discovery of this fundamental principle, he was the first artist to discover an enamelling technique which could be successfully applied to sculpture.
His eventual breakthrough followed several failed attempts to enamel small terracotta reliefs, made during the 1430s. Luca's technique remained a closely-guarded secret until after his death, but its basic steps can be briefly outlined. The artist first modelled his damp clay into the desired shape. This was usually done by hand, although simple designs, such as decorative repeat-motifs, could be cast from a mould.
The latter method was generally eschewed by Luca although it was often used by Andrea della Robbia. Cast details were inevitably much cruder and more stereotyped than those individually modelled, as may be illustrated by the contrast between the sensitively sculpted foliage of the 'Stemma' of René of Anjou and the monotonous formalised flowers from the border of the later della Robbia roundel of 'The Adoration of the Shepherds', also at the Victoria and Albert Museum. After the clay had dried, it was fired in an oven. If the sculpture was of considerable size, it would previously have been cut into sections which were fired separately.
This was the case with the 'Stemma', where the central area is formed of seven or eight pieces and the border of no less than fourteen. When it had cooled, the clay was treated with a lead glaze before being fired a second time, in order to make its surface harder and impervious to water. The glaze would be coloured by the prior addition of one of the limited number of coloured oxides available.
By the standards of the day, the range of pigmentation in the 'Stemma' is a very wide one, comprising six colours: white, yellow, purple, blue and light and dark green. A multi-part relief, such as the 'Stemma', would then be pieced together before finally being cemented into the place prepared for it on the wall.
In his 'Life' of Luca della Robbia, Vasari described the artist's changeover from marble carving to enamelled terracotta in the following terms: Luca 'came to realise how slight had been his advantage and how great had been his labour. Accordingly he determined to abandon marble and bronze, and to see if he could derive greater advantage from other methods. It then occurred to him that clay can be manipulated with ease and little trouble, and that the only thing required was to discover a means whereby work produced in this material could be preserved for a long time ...'.
This rather facile analysis is superficially plausible, but tells part of the story at best. As a medium, terracotta had the advantage that its raw material was rather cheaper than marble and consider-ably less expensive than bronze. Most important of all, however, was the unique nature of enamelled terracotta as a brightly and permanently coloured form of poly-chromed sculpture.
In a shadowy position, such as the inner lintel of a church portal, it was much more clearly visible than bronze, wood or marble. If set high in an outside wall, as was the case with the 'Stemma', its fused ceramic colours would not only be distinguishable but also proof against the elements.
The career of Luca della Robbia (1400-82)
Luca probably trained in the studio of Nanni di Banco and may have worked on the marble 'Assumption of the Virgin' over the Porta della Mandorla at Florence cathedral, which was left unfinished on the latter's death in 1421. He was already an accomplished sculptor before matriculating as a member of the Florentine guild of stone and wood carvers in 1432.
Luca's first important commission was the 'Cantoria' or Singing Gallery for the North Sacristy of the Cathedral, which was executed between 1431 and 1438. This remarkable work, with its relief panels bursting with animated figures of singers and musicians, clearly indicates his consummate skill and delicacy as a carver of marble.
His position as a leading member of the Florentine artistic avant garde was confirmed in 1434 when Alberti jointly dedicated his seminal artistic treatise 'Della Pittura' to Luca, together with Donatello, Ghiberti, Masaccio and Brunelleschi. During the later 1430s he executed several important marble carvings before producing, in the period from 1441 to 1443, the work which was to mark a turning point in his career.
The tabernacle of the sacrament for the chapel of St. Luke in the Florentine church of San Egidio is mainly of carved marble with the addition of a central relief of cast bronze. However, the cherub-heads and garlands in the frieze, the background of the lunette behind the marble Pieta and the decorative inlay in the spandrels and the ledge at the foot of the tabernacle are all of enamelled terracotta. Thereafter, Luca worked almost exclusively in this new medium.
His lunette relief of the 'Resurrection', executed in 1442-45 for the Cathedral sacristy, was followed in 1446-51 by a second lunette of the 'Ascension'. The intimate series of roundels of the 'Months', which originally decorated the study of Piero de' Medici and which are also at the Victoria and Albert Museum, were probably produced in the mid-1450s.
Around the end of the decade he executed his greatest figurative cycle, the majestic Twelve Apostles, set in roundels in the ceiling of the Pazzi chapel at Santa Croce. The much more florid ceiling of the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal at San Miniato al Monte dates from about 1461 to 62. At about the same time the decoration of the chapels of the Madonna and the Cross at the collegiata at Impruneta near Florence were taken in hand. Few of Luca's heraldic stemme are precisely dateable, but all seem to have been executed during the 1460s and 70s. Of all his works, the best-known are the numerous versions of the Madonna and Child which proved so influential on later artists.
During Luca's declining years, his nephew and former apprentice Andrea worked beside him, some-times in association but more often independently. The roundel of the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' in the Victoria and Albert Museum is probably a work of the 1470s, which has been variously attributed either to the uncle or the nephew. After Luca's death, Andrea and his sons continued the family workshop well into the 16th century. Their reliefs are competent enough, but they display a stereotyped sentimentality which inhibited further original development.
Stemme and Roundel sculpture
During the Quattrocento, the circular or tondo format was very popular both for paintings and reliefs. The severe geometry of Brunelleschian architecture was particularly receptive to this form, which could be used with equal propriety to decorate walls, ceilings, domes or pendentives. Luca's 'Twelve Apostles' in their simple pietra serena frames were appropriately sobre accessories to the Pazzi chapel.
The 'Four Cardinal Virtues' and the 'Holy Ghost' roundels from his ceiling of the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal had much more elaborate frames with several rings of egg and dart mouldings and scales of three-tone blue. When Luca designed the 'Stemma' of the Mercanzia in 1463, he employed the roundel format to fit the pre-extant niche on Or San Michele.
He recast the frieze of fruit which had already been employed at Impruneta as a seething ring of leaves and fruit which emphasises the swelling organic form of the central fleur-de-lys. The shape of the central oculus of the Pazzi chapel, which Luca decorated with the family's arms in 1465-70, also required the use of the circular form. This basic design proved so successful and he re-used it for the stemme of Jacopo de' Pazzi and his wife at the Palazzo Serristori and for that of René of Anjou.
In these later stemme he substituted more disciplined and monumental bunches of fruit for the wider and more fragmentary variety of the Mercanzia commission. The successive repetitions of the circular fruit frame made by Luca's successors should not obscure the essential novelty of his invention.
Jacopo de' Pazzi, (d. 1478)
Jacopo de' Pazzi was a member of an old and illustrious Florentine merchant family and is now best remembered as a leader of the Pazzi conspiracy which attempted to unseat the Medici in 1478. After the disastrous failure of this plot, he was executed, his property confiscated and his coat of arms defaced.
Although Jacopo held several high offices in Florence, he enjoyed greater favour with René of Anjou. The association of the French prince with the Pazzi began in 1442, when René was entertained at the family villa in Montughi. After the death of his father Andrea in 1445, Jacopo strengthened these ties. He served as an agent collecting works of art for René, held the offices of clavaire and viguier of Marseilles and became a royal counsellor. In 1453 he was made a member of the Order of the Crescent and appended its distinctive symbol to his own armorials.
The decoration of Jacopo's villa with the 'Stemma' of René of Anjou not only recorded the prince's visit there but also stressed the Florentine's own status as the trusted servant of a great foreign lord. One could compare this political purpose of the 'Stemma' with those of contemporary portraits of Duke Federigo of Urbino, prominently wearing the Order of the Garter granted to him by Edward IV.
This ostentation might be acceptable for a prince such as Federigo, but was hardly appropriate for a citizen of the Florentine republic. Such actions were crowned by the Pazzi conspiracy, earning Jacopo an unenviable posthumous reputation for pride and arrogance. Jacopo's commissions indicate that he was a discerning patron, who was well aware of the propagandist value of art. All of Luca's stemme with a fruit frame, save for that of the Mercanzia, were ordered by him. Jacopo would appear to have been particularly fond of this design, which his patronage did much to propagate.
René of Anjou (1409-80)
Few princes of his day could boast as many titles as René I; Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence (from 1434), Duke of Bar (from 1430), Duke of Lorraine (1431-53), titular King of Naples and Sicily, Hungary and Jerusalem (from 1435) and Pretender to the Crown of Aragon (from 1466). After being held a prisoner by the Duke of Burgundy (1431-32 and 1435-37), he hurried to claim his Neapolitan inheritance.
From 1438 until 1442 he was in effective control of Naples, before being expelled by the rival claimant, Alfonso of Aragon. Although René played an important part in the Anglo-French negotiations of Tours (1445), he was seldom fortunate in his own political affairs and was more at home in the world of arts and letters. René wrote a number of didactic and moral works as well as romances in both verse and prose. The most famous of these was the 'Livre du cuer d'amour espris' (1457), of which an exquisitely illuminated copy exists at Vienna.
René's book of hours in London indicates that his interest in the visual arts dated back at least as far as 1435-36. It is instructive to compare the dramatic coat of arms in this manuscript 'with Luca della Robbia's much later 'Stemma'. In addition to patronising notable Flemish-trained painters such as Nicholas Froment, René was one of the first Northern princes to appreciate Italian Renaissance art. He employed Pietro da Milano as a medallist and Francesco Laurana as medallist, sculptor and architect. Other Italian works of art were acquired at his behest or sent as gifts by Jacopo de' Pazzi.
The second 'Stemma'
A watercolour by the French antiquary Gaignières illustrates a 'Stemma' of René of Anjou which is practically identical with the terracotta at the Victoria and Albert Museum, save that the position of the fruit in the border and the shape of the dragon's wings on the helm has been altered and the Pazzi crosslets on the right-hand brazier have been deleted. This watercolour is probably a copy of a second della Robbia 'Stemma' which formerly decorated the facade of René's palace at Aix.
Although this building was demolished in 1776-86, an old drawing by Pouillard records the appearance of the facade; almost hidden behind a later porch, a large coat of arms in a decorated roundel is visible, set just below the roof line. A crudely carved vault boss of 1480-98 from Jeanne de Laval's manor of Les Rivettes is decorated with the Duchess' arms, set within a circular fruit frame, confirming the existence of the second 'Stemma' and illustrating its influence upon local craftsmen.
The recent discovery of the lost 'Stemma' from Aix sets the terracotta at the Victoria and Albert Museum in a new light, indicating that it is the survivor of at least two versions of René's arms commissioned from Luca della Robbia.Written by Mark Evans, 1981, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series. Revised 2006.