This festive and attractive unpublished glazed frame, on which there is a luxuriant garland of fruit and flowers with little animals, very naturalistically modelled, and brightened by strong polychromy, is representative and beautiful - for its elegant, component liveliness, the quality of its workmanship, the different shades of its ceramic palette - of the widespread ornamental work that in the Renaissance was typical of the Della Robbia family's art. In fact, similar garlands used to frame heraldic medals, "antiqued" effigies, and Virgin Mary reliefs linked to family or civic prosperity or to the great profusion of divine grace, together with festoons, briars and greenery that adorn altar posts, lunettes and tabernacles, are present from the middle of the XV century and for more than a century later in the works of the Della Robbia family, diversely interpreted by Luca, his nephew Andrea and his five children who inherit the famous, important workshop (Gentilini 1992; Quinterio 1998).
Their extraordinary capacity to reproduce nature's gifts in majolica, the fleeting fragrance of fruit, vegetables, greenery and the fragile beauty of flowers, with an illusionistic virtuosity capable of emulating the legendary creations of the Greek chloroplast Posside which were praised by Varrone and Plinio, was one of the most distinctive and appreciated features - as we can read in "Vite" by Vasari (1550, 1568) - of the prolific and polyhedral activity of this famous family (Gentilini, Mozzati 2009). It is actually the flourishing garlands which are the works destined to remain in people's imaginations as the unmistakable mark of Della Robbia art, to such an extent that in America the popular Christmas wreaths with pinecones, apples and other fruit are called "Della Robbia wreaths" (Gentilini 2016).
The work in question here is made up of a wide 'fascia' frame profiled inside with 'ovoli e dardi' molding, glazed in white to imitate marble, on which lies a flourishing garland composed of a huge variety of fruit (apples, bunches of grapes, pomegranates, pine-cones, plums, almonds, etc.) citrus fruits (lemons, oranges and citrons) and vegetables (cucumbers, peas, cloves of garlic) with their leaves, interspersed with white, pale blue and yellow wildflowers (little roses, campanulas, parnassias, gentians, etc.). In the damp vegetation there are some little animals, probably forged using moulds of real animals according to a practice already described by Cennini (c.1400) and well documented in Renaissance terracotta and bronze sculpture (Gramaccini 1985) as well as in the majolica of Bernary Palissy (Klier 2004): three small-silhouetted frogs, a sinuous lizard, a snail and a crab busy clasping a piece of fruit.
The flourishing profusion of greenery is cleverly contained by a careful mathematic-geometric arrangement, according to the Alberti principle of "varietas" disciplined by "compositio". In fact, the larger more recognisable fruits and vegetables decorating the garland are grouped in eight bunches, each of which is composed of five fruits of the same botanical species (the only exception is the bunches of grapes alternating with lemons), placed in the symmetric way - two pairs followed by a single fruit in the centre, with the larger ones on the outside of the group -, and they are mainly coupled with vegetables and fruit which are smaller and secondary, like the cloves of garlic, the peas, the plums, and the wildflowers that intersperse the bunches.
The bunches follow each other with regular spaces and counterclockwise, each one modelled over one of the eight pieces into which the frame has been divided to help the drying, firing and transport of the work. It is not easy to establish the original sequence of the pieces (some of which, moreover, show externally, near the joining points, some conventional marks carved into the fresh clay and numbers written in black, intended for a correct mounting "in situ"), since in Della Robbia works there was no fixed rule that established the order of the various varieties of vegetables portrayed in the segments of the frames. However, it is probable that the garland foresaw a chromatic alternation of the bunches with a prevalence of yellow fruit (apples, lemons, oranges, citrons) over vegetables and green fruit (pomegranates, cucumber) and reddish fruit (bunches of grapes, plums) thus determining a balanced display of the six animals too.
This compositional strictness is reflected too in the constructional aspects, since the size of the pieces (c. cm. 58 x 35) corresponds to the unit of measurement of time, the 'braccio fiorentino' (cm. 58,36). Moreover, the technique of the modelling which can be appreciated by looking at the back of the frame, shows a magisterial conformity to the consolidated rules of the best works by the Della Robbia family (Vaccari 1998; 2009). The pieces, carefully cleared, present a box-like structure of the same thickness with holes corresponding to the larger fruit which was modelled by moving the clay over the surface of the frame "a fascia", and they show other contrivances (deep-set partitions with holes) useful for the joining of the various elements and the anchorage of the work onto a wall.
The sides and partitions are at present chiselled in an irregular way which suggests that the frame was walled-in on the wall of a building; therefore, especially taking into consideration its size, we may imagine that it originally framed heraldic arms, like the numerous Della Robbia coats-of-arms that still today decorate residential palaces in and around Florence (Marquand 1919; Dionigi 2014). However, as we have already mentioned and as we shall see, garlands of this kind were also used to frame the Virgin Mary with Child and other holy images made both for domestic life and the church; they were often placed outside buildings where the glazing guaranteed that the bright polychromy would be protected from the weather: above all concerning Giovanni della Robbia's works, to whom this piece can be easily attributed.
The particularly thick, varied composition of the garland, the turgid modelling of the fruit accompanied by fleshy leaves and thick-petaled flowers, the intense, thick shades of colour of the varnishes, the presence of numerous little animals and the classic "ovoli e dardi" molding, find a large number of comparisons in Giovanni della Robbia's works: the most prolific and independent of Andrea della Robbia's children who shared, until the death of their father in 1525, the busy workshop in Via Guelfa (Marquand 1920; Gentilini 1992, pages 279-238). Giovanni's signed works - the only member of the family to sometimes sign their work - are, in fact, characterised by a stronger decorative vein which brings him to emphasize the archeological and naturalistic decorations, inserting even in his first documented works, like the "Lavabo" in the Sacriof Santa Maria Novella (1498), thick festoons and garlands, full of every kind of vegetable.
On the other hand, the garlands produced by his father, Andrea (Marquand 1922; Gentilini 1992, pages 169-271), appear sparser, less exuberant, rarefied, often with bunches alternating with ribbons; in those of his brothers Luca the young and Girolamo (Marquand 1928, pages 65-130; Gentilini 1992, pages 329-371) pale shades of colour are prevalent and we find a modelling style which is sharp and incisive; while the over-abundance that certainly characterises the vegetable decorations of the brothers Marco and Ambrogio (Marquand 1928, pages 1-63; Gentilini 1992, pages 372-389) appear bundled up, commonplace and messy.
Among the more important signed works by Giovanni della Robbia which offer us particularly precise comparisons, in order to attest the name of the artist who made our garland, we can indicate the festoons that frame the monumental "Natività" that used to be in San Girolamo delle Poverine in Florence and is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, signed and dated 1521 - these festoons are also similar in the composition of the bunches with five fruits in each - and the imaginative "Tabernacolo delle Fonticine" in Via Nazionale, made in 1522, where we find again the presence of numerous little animals, such as some crabs which, absent until then in the Della Robbia garlands, induces us to date the work in question here around 1520.
A last, even more important, comparison for the attribution proposed here and for a date during the early 1520s, are the three medallions of the Virgin Mary and the four heraldic medallions made by Giovanni della Robbia for the porch of the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia (Capecchi, Masdea, Tesi, Tucci 2015, pages 117-125), commissioned in 1525 by Leonardo Buonafede, one of the most important religious buyers of the time, which present a similar organisation and variety of vegetables, the same "ovoli e dardi" molding, and the same colourful, busy little animals: in particular the medallion portraying "l'Assunzione di Maria" where, as well as little frogs, lizards and snails, there is an identical crab and he too is clutching a leaf between his large claws.