by Roderick Conway Morris

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Verrocchio Restored to Greatness

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 17 April 2019
National Gallery, London
Virgin with Two Angels by Andrea Verrocchio, c.1471-72



Andrea Verrocchio's studio in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence was the principal artistic powerhouse of the Florentine Renaissance in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. It operated like an open academy, attracting the most talented aspiring sculptors and painters of the age. By the time Verrocchio was in his mid thirties (he was born in around 1435), it could count among its students, Perugino, Domenico del Ghirlandaio, Bartolomeo della Gatta, Piermatteo d'Amelia (all in their early twenties), Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi (both still in their teens). Its influence was hardly less palpable on other emerging Florentine and Umbrian artists of the period, including Botticelli, Benedetto da Maiano, Filippino Lippi and Luca Signorelli.

Verrocchio had initially trained as a goldsmith, but soon switched to carving in marble and painting before concentrating on making sculptures in bronze. He was a brilliant draughtsman and designer, also admired for his knowledge of the sciences of perspective, geometry and music. His crucial role in the formation of Leonardo has long been recognized, but appreciation of his greatness as an artist in his own right has diminished over time. A fundamental reason for this was the manner in which Giorgio Vasari treated him in his 'Lives of the Artists' (1550 and1568).

Although sometimes extravagant in his praise of Verrocchio's mastery of several disciplines, Vasari fails to acknowledge his unique achievements – let alone the immensity of his influence on subsequent generations of artists. And Vasari's damning (and now impossible to justify) comment at the beginning of his account of the artist, that 'his style in sculpture and painting was somewhat hard and crude, as if he had acquired his skill rather by indefatigable study than by any natural gift or facility', has cast a long and distorting shadow over his reputation.

At last Verrocchio is the subject of a timely and impressive exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi (with a sub-section at the Bargello) in Florence, Verrocchio: Master of Leonardo, the first of its kind. It is curated by Francesco Caglioti and Andrea de Marchi, who are also the editors of a valuable volume of the same title devoted to the artist. A smaller version of the show will travel on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington at the end of September.

The layout of the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition (and catalogue) are roughly chronological, and at the heart of the curators' argument is their determination to overturn the tendency in Verrocchio scholarship 'to postdate many of his works to the 1470s and even early 1480s, when they actually belong to the 1460s or early 1470s, almost nullifying Verrocchio's role as the driving force in developments in Florentine art in the early Renaissance period', in the words of Francesco Caglioti.

The first rooms juxtapose Verrocchio's marble sculptures with those of Desiderio di Settignano, who was around five years older and from whom Verrocchio learned how to carve in stone. These pieces show Verrocchio's extraordinary skill in numerous artistic forms. It also demonstrates his constant (and often overlooked) role as an innovator. His 'Lady with Flowers' (from the Bargello) is the first marble bust of its kind to be lengthened to include the subject's hands (in this case, exquisitely rendered). It is accompanied by a drawing of hands in similar positions by Leonardo from around the same year (1475), the first of many examples here of the young tiro's debt to his master's work.

Verrocchio was chosen by the elderly Donatello as his designated artistic heir: he was tasked, after Donatello's death in 1469, with finishing his work on the Medici Tombs. Verrocchio also set up his own studio on the same premises as Donatello's last bottega. Verrocchio was clearly chosen by the Medici to become their principal artist, a role that Donatello had acquired by the end of his career. Verrocchio's earliest known bronze dates to around this time (1468–70). It is of David, a figure the Medici brazenly appropriated as a symbol of their struggle for supremacy against the city's ancient communal government.

By this time Verrocchio had largely abandoned marble carving to devote himself to the more challenging task of emulating the ancients by making monumental bronzes. Yet he took a remarkable excursion into painting, with work that came to influence his successors for decades. His 'Madonna and Child' panels from this period, with their beautifully subtle skin tones, wonderful drapery, limpid light and landscape backdrops, established a new model for the genre. The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see four autograph examples (from Berlin and London) along with a 'Tobias and the Angel' (from London) brought together. One of these images also provided the prototype for the countless subsequent compositions of the Madonna with the Christ-child standing on a parapet. As captivating examples by two of Andreas's students, Perugino and Piermatteo d'Amelia, illustrate, these models were rapidly disseminated by his followers and soon became familiar all over Italy.

Nor did Verrocchio's role as an innovator in painted formats end there. It has now been proved by reflectography that Verrocchio certainly did the design for the Madonna di Piazza altarpiece (on show at the end of the exhibition) in the San Zeno Cathedral in Pistoia (the execution of which was completed by Lorenzo di Credi). This work introduced a groundbreaking new presentation of the Madonna, Child and Saints framed by a loggia and sweeping landscape views beyond.

Both Verrocchio and Donatello were inspired by ancient sculptures, but when it came to contemporary artists there can be little doubt that Verrocchio measured himself above all against the achievements of his former master. Donatello had been given the opportunity to create the first great bronze equestrian statue since antiquity, when he was invited by the Venetian Republic to design a monument for the Serenissima's former mercenary general Gattamalata to stand in the Piazza del Santo in Padua.

Verrocchio's chance to emulate him on this grand scale came when a subsequent condottiere, Bartolomeo Colleoni, left a large part of his wealth to the Serenissima on condition they erect another statue to him in front of San Marco. The work was ultimately placed in front of the Scuola di San Marco, one of the city's most important confraternity houses, in Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo.

With designs for the monument completed, Verrocchio departed for Venice in the summer of 1486, leaving his studio in the hands of Lorenzo di Credi. Sadly, he did not live to see the Colleoni statue in place; in June 1488, during the immense task of realizing the statue, 'becoming overheated during the casting, he caught a chill, of which he died a few days later'.

Had he had the opportunity to make such a masterpiece for the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, where it might eventually have stood alongside the works of Ammannati, Bandinelli, Cellini, Donatello, Giambologna and Michelangelo, he would surely have retained a more prominent position in the pantheon of Florentine art – a position this excellent exhibition should do much to restore.

'Verrocchio: Master of Leonardo' at Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello, Florence, 9 March -14 July 2019.

Verrocchio: Master of Leonardo
384pp. Marsilio editori
Francesco Caglioti, Andrea de Marchi (editors)

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024