It is very hard not to like Luca della Robbia, the star of Make a Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral, at the High Museum of Art through January 11. The distinctively glazed terra cotta for which he is best known combines delicious color with skillfully rendered figuration; this show, however, features his earlier marble sculpture, three panels from the organ loft screen commissioned by Florence Cathedral in 1431 and completed in 1438.
The three-foot-tall panels, exhibited in the United States for the first time, demonstrate that Luca was incredibly skilled from the moment of this, his first commission. (At age 32, he had an unknown quantity of juvenilia behind him.) The faces of his Boys Singing from a Book wear individualized expressions, and the book extends completely from the panel along with the forearms of the boys holding it. This level of skill remains consistent throughout the sequence of 10 panels, to the point that there is some dispute as to the order in which they were created.
We are, however, certain that the cathedral increased Luca’s compensation midway through the process — more than what the master Donatello was given for a similar project — and that he was a Florentine art star long before he realized he could produce work more quickly if he could learn how to work as spectacularly in terra cotta as in stone.
Gary Radke, the scholar behind the High’s series of focus exhibits on Renaissance art, has attempted to set these panels in the context of the musical performances for which they served as incidental decoration. This isn’t easy; the panels are presented as autonomous objects, viewed much more close up than worshippers ever would have seen them in their original setting, and photographs of the reconstructed organ screen don’t offer anything like the probable impact of the realistically rendered figures combined with living voices.
Of course, all of the finer details of Florentine cathedral decoration were meant for the eyes of God and the eyes of the patrons whose gaze would confer approval on the work before its installation. The impact on individual worshippers would have been cumulative, and multisensory.
The three immense choir books on display in the High’s vitrines were commissioned as public illustrations of the wealth and power of their sponsors as well as functional vehicles for sung liturgies. A gorgeous illumination portraying the gathered donors and officials, in the volume containing the texts for the cathedral’s consecration, makes this point.
A five-foot-tall wooden lectern designed for the choir books illustrates how they would have been seen by the singers.
Recorded and live music in an adjacent gallery attempts to render the effect of Renaissance choral performance, but it’s impossible to reproduce the extraordinary combination of light, space and sound that would have constituted the act of worship in the cathedral.
The complex impact of such music is better rendered a floor above, where Janet Cardiff’s 2001 sound piece Forty Part Motet (through January 18) uses a circle of forty 40 to re-invent Thomas Tallis’ ca. 1570 Spes in alium.
Cardiff’s arrangement offers a dematerialized intimacy in which visitors can commune with the voices of individual singers or allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the slowly accumulating vocal drama of the overall performance of Tallis’ composition.
The concurrent presentation of the art-historical homage to Renaissance Florence’s re-creation of antique splendor and Cardiff’s contemporary homage to past creators and present-day technology is nothing short of inspired.