In search of my della Robbia blue

The Pazzi Chapel cupola, with blue terracotta decorations designed by Luca della Robbia, in Florence, Italy.
Cappella dei Pazzi (Pazzi Chapel), where Luca della Robbia designed the dome under the portico. Ben Rimmer/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With my first book one month out from publication, I now understand why many writers choose to be recluses.

It’s frightening to open up your work—your heart—to criticisms and equally frightening to open it up to interpretation. You as artist want to maintain fidelity to your vision, and facing an onslaught of reactions, no matter their tone or tenor, can scramble the air waves. To share your art is to release control over it. It now belongs to the beholder, and the release can bring terror, peace, joy—sometimes all at the same time.

For myself, I’m grappling with the slow acceptance that in mere weeks, people I don’t know (read: people much more likely to offer their honest and unvarnished opinion) are going to be reading and reacting to a little book I’ve spent 15 years of my life creating. I was in my early 20s, single, and living at my parents’ house when I started my blog Italian Mother Syndrome to thunderous crickets on the internet. I’m now 39, married, a mother of two, and a debut author. In those intervening years I wrote on lazy weekends and crunched lunch hours. I played around with picture books and earned a master’s degree in creative writing. My vision has shifted and grown, receded and wilted, but when I look at the trend line I see a steady tick upward—the slow, patient fulfillment of a dream.

Let’s be honest: AMEN? will not debut with “instant New York Times bestseller” status. As much as I host happy daydreams of becoming a runaway sleeper hit, that moment of transformation will take a beat, if it ever comes at all. I’ll be delighted when we hit our sales projections (and I’m working hard to help manifest that), but I’m really in this for the notes I hope I will receive from people who have read my writing. Who felt moved by it. Inspired. Less alone.

Once AMEN? has moved about the world for a while and reaches a more comfortable maturity, I wonder how my relationship to my writing will have changed (yet again) in the intervening years. I know what I don’t want to happen: to feel boxed in or to have others’ expectations direct my creative choices. What do I want instead? The courage to follow my madman, to experiment, to disappear into the cave when I need to reconnect with my unique voice and perspective as it is right now, for me.

You might be familiar with the della Robbia family of 15th- and 16th-century Italy, whose glazed terracotta sculptures—and in particular their use of a vivid blue hue—have become virtually synonymous with Renaissance art. My friend Kirsten at @wanderingartnerd on Instagram recently shared that a mentor once told her “no one has or even could replicate that stunning blue.” Whether it’s true or not (and it seems Pantone would like to think otherwise), the idea cheers and emboldens me. What is my equivalent of della Robbia blue? What is the secret sauce that only I can bring to the world of words? The undefinable answer to that question—ironically, an answer that can’t be captured in words—is what I hope carries me forth through many more years of exploration, experimentation, and creative vulnerability.


Prayer #381: Della Robbia Blue

Rumor has it the recipe for the famed della Robbia blue is scrawled on the back of one of the artworks. Tantalizing, that prospect, to have an answer to a centuries-old mystery hiding in plain sight, as easy to solve as flipping over a frame and deciphering a scribbled note. Tantalizing, that notion, to skip the journey of discovery, to bypass the wondering, to forego any attempts at re-creation.

On days I feel discouraged in my art, I am desperate to flip the frame. But on days I feel brave, I could not care less about someone else’s process. Why enshrine what was never mine to offer? My mixtures carry their own alchemy. They may not result in the same blue, but they are a new blue—the blue of a changeable sky, a rippling ocean, a far-seeing eye—a blue only I can create.

Help me own this color and its provenance; help me celebrate its authenticity.