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Verrocchio: The New Cicerone

A few months ago, a terra-cotta bust of a woman passed through the London auction rooms, leaving a little puzzlement and worry in its wake. Once, in its glory days, as a work of Andrea del Verrocchio, it had graced the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan. That interesting scholar W.R. Valentiner, who earlier this century was lured from Berlin to the Metropolitan Museum in New York (his career forms a link between Bode’s Berlin and the Getty Museum in Malibu), compared the profile of the bust with a drawing by Leonardo in Windsor Castle. He thought that the master (Verrocchio) and his most famous pupil (Leonardo) might have used the same model.1 But other voices were raised to denounce the work as a fake. Or, if not a fake, as a portrait of a nineteenth-century sitter in Renaissance costume. This low opinion prevailed over Valentiner’s, and the bust was disgraced, deaccessioned, without chance of reprieve.

But that was not the end of the story, for the auction room catalog announced that the bust had recently been subjected to a thermoluminescence test, which proved that it had last been fired in or around the fifteenth century. Whatever it was, there was no reason to call it a fake. And if it was not a fake, perhaps Valentiner’s opinion might merit further consideration. For, when it came to Verrocchio scholarship, Valentiner was not nobody. In 1933 he was able to show that a candelabrum in the Schlossmuseum in Berlin was a documented work of Verrocchio. This is now one of the treasures of the Rijksmuseum.2

There are not many known surviving works by Verrocchio. Andrew Butterfield’s new book lists thirty, of which four are uncertain and others seem more the work of the studio than of the master. That makes Verrocchio as rare as Vermeer, but with this exciting difference: Verrocchios—real ones—have turned up, both through inspired acts of reattribution and as objects previously unknown to scholarship. What is more, it is quite certain that there are others waiting to be found. In the 1980s, a terra-cotta modello for the figure of the executioner of John the Baptist turned up on the London antiques market. But other sketch models for the same relief scene were once known. If the heirs of Baron Adolphe Rothschild would just investigate their cupboards a little more carefully, they might yet find them.

One might think that with so many art historians crawling over every inch of its surface there would be nothing left to discover in Florence. But Butterfield, if he is right, has found a Verrocchio in the Bargello itself. And meanwhile a curator of that museum, Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, has made a particularly fascinating discovery. Taking a second look at an unprepossessing crucifix, which had already been logged as nothing in particular, she decided to have it cleaned. What emerged from beneath centuries of filth was the original polychromy of a Verrocchio Christ. This discovery was published in 1994.3

If an item such as a crucifix has spent all its life in a church, and has been considered as a liturgical object rather than a work of art, the chances are that it will have built up a surface consisting of alternate layers of candle soot and repaint. Nobody ever thought of stripping it, only of touching it up. But if a dealer, a collector, or (in some cases worst of all) a museum has been involved, then the likelihood is that at some point in its career the object will have been stripped of what was considered inauthentic polychromy. A terra cotta will have been soaked in solvent, scrubbed with steel wool, “taken back” to a “pure” original state. And if this state was found to be aesthetically unsatisfactory (supposing the object turned out to be incomplete or cracked or broken), then the restorer will have made up the deficiencies and covered his work with a layer of a substance much resembling an item which used to appear on British menus—Brown Windsor Soup. This soupy, lustrous, gravy finish was at the height of its popularity around the turn of the century, in the heyday of J. Pierpont Morgan’s collecting.

In the fifteenth century, a terra-cotta bust—say, a portrait produced for a domestic setting—would, after firing, have had any kiln cracks or other deficiencies made good. It would then have been coated with a thin layer of gesso before being painted, and perhaps partially gilded. Even marble sculptures were sometimes painted and gilded, and there is a beautiful surviving example of this technique in the recently opened gallery that the Metropolitan Museum has devoted to the sculpture of this period. The world of the Florentine plastic arts was not entirely composed of monochrome effects in marble, terra cotta, and bronze. Sculptures were glazed and fired. They were painted and gilded. They were produced by means which other ages would have abhorred—portrait busts being made from death masks, for instance—and in such “unclassical” materials as papier-mâché or wax or plaster. There were works in mixed media. Verrocchio’s crucifix is one such: parts of it are built up with pieces of cork; the loincloth or perizonium is made of fabric dipped in plaster. An object of this kind, placed in a damp cellar, will soon disintegrate. A flood would be fatal to it. That is one reason why so little of this kind of work has survived. But another reason is that the history of taste turned so decisively against it.

The Pierpont Morgan bust was intriguing because it was known that the Brown Windsor surface concealed a fifteenth-century ceramic core. But nobody knew what else it concealed. Were there the remains of some wonderful polychromy, or was it a horrible botch-up? Why had it once been so admired as a Verrocchio, then so detested as a fake? During the days of its display people turned it over and shone torches in its eyes, frowned at it, made notes on its condition, and, after all this attention, bits of brown surface flaked off—as if the curious had picked at the scab. One felt sorry for it, in this protracted humiliation. And then it sold…but for a modest sum. One way or another it had failed to convince.

But who knows what it will look like on its next public appearance? Who knows what the next episode of its critical fortune will be?

2.

Verrocchio’s own critical fortune had to endure two and a half centuries of silence, during which we have to assume that a great deal of his work either disintegrated or was deliberately destroyed. It was only in the nineteenth century that he returned to the prominent position he had once occupied. Born in the 1430s, he died in 1488, the greatest sculptor in the Florentine tradition between Donatello and Michelangelo. And to be one of the greatest artists in that tradition, in the eyes of the nineteenth century, was like being one of the greatest artists in Periclean Athens.

Here is Ruskin in 1853, evoking the early Renaissance:

For the first time since the destruction of Rome, the world had seen, in the work of the greatest artists of the fifteenth century,—in the painting of Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, Francia, Perugino, Pinturrichio, and Bellini; in the sculpture of Mino da Fiesole, of Ghiberti, and Verrocchio,—a perfection of execution and fullness of knowledge which cast all previous art into the shade, and which, being in the work of those men united with all that was great of former days, did indeed justify the utmost enthusiasm with which their efforts were, or could be, regarded.

And Ruskin goes on to say, of what he calls “cinque-cento work”:

When it has been done by a truly great man, whose life and strength could not be oppressed, and who turned to good account the whole science of his day, nothing is more exquisite. I do not believe, for instance, that there is a more glorious work of sculpture existing in the whole world than that equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleone, by Verrocchio.4

It was praise like this that sent generations of tourists to the Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice to gaze up at the features of Verrocchio’s stern condottiere there. And it was praise like this that inspired dealers, collectors, and museum directors to seek out and acquire such works as they could. Meanwhile it was the job of scholars in the first part of this century to denounce and eliminate the numerous fakes and mistakes that had found their way into the corpus. They wanted a leaner Verrocchio, incapable of inferior work. In a way, such decisions must always have an element of the arbitrary. The connoisseur sets his own standards for what is to be tolerated as an autograph work. He conducts his own calibration. Butterfield sets the standard high, perhaps severely so. But the quality of reasoning, the depth of documentation, and above all the knowledge and sense of cultural context make this monograph quite different from anything else ever written about its subject. This is less of a compliment than it sounds, because the literature on Verrocchio is curiously thin. But to put the matter plainly, this is a book with no rivals.

Verrocchio was born into the artisan class of Florence: his father was a fornaciaio (which means that he worked with a kiln) and a member of the stoneworkers’ guild. Later he became a customs agent. Verrocchio could have received some instruction from him in the working of stone and clay. Vasari, whose high opinion of Verrocchio is tempered by the observation that his manner was “somewhat hard and crude” and the product of infinite study, calls him “a goldsmith, a master of perspective, a sculptor, a wood-carver, a painter, and a musician.” Of his goldsmith’s work he mentions buttons for copes and “particularly a cup, full of animals, foliage, and other bizarre fancies, which is known to all goldsmiths, and casts are taken of it.” He made a copper ball to go on the cupola of the Duomo (it was later destroyed). Butterfield says that “Renaissance artists who trained initially as goldsmiths often later became painters, architects, and bronze sculptors, but almost never achieved distinction in carving marble” and that Verrocchio is one of the few exceptions to this rule. What survives of his sculptural work shows us the full range of activity for an artist of his day—with one exception, that of the free-standing figure or group in stone. In the following cicerone, based on Butterfield’s work and my own recent travels, I have tried (not wholly successfully, as will appear) to consider each object in the new canon, in situ.

3.

Washington

That the founders of the great American collections were initially pessimistic about their ability to acquire major works of European art may strike one as quaint, considering what was in the end achieved. But in the case of sculpture, by which they meant preeminently Italian Renaissance sculpture, that pessimism was not far wrong. Consider what eluded them. No sculpture by Michelangelo or Ghiberti was acquired. One major Donatello, the luminous marble relief of the Madonna of the Clouds, entered the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Also in Boston one major bronze by Cellini, the wonderful bust of Bindo Altoviti, came to the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum. There are minor works attributed to both of the latter artists in American collections: but in this context the word rare means rare.

  1. 1

    W.R. Valentiner, Studies of Italian Renaissance Sculpture (London:Phaidon, 1950), p. 182.

  2. 2

    Within two years of Valentiner’s publishing this discovery, the director of the Schlossmuseum exchanged the candelabrum, among other objects, for part of the Guelph Treasure, which included German medieval goldsmith’s work of the highest quality and which, particularly in the political and cultural climate of the time, would have proved irresistible.

  3. 3

    Burlington Magazine, December 1994.

  4. 4

    The Stones of Venice, Part Three.

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