In two sentences, the sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari demolished the reputation of the man who, a scant century earlier, had been the most sought-after sculptor in Italy. From its high-flying introductory sentence, his life of Andrea del Verrocchio descends instantly into devastating criticism:
In his time, Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine, was a goldsmith, a master of perspective, a sculptor, engraver, painter, and musician. But the truth is that his style in sculpture and painting was somewhat harsh and unrefined, the product of infinite labor rather than any natural gift or facility.
Most of Vasari’s readers have been ready to accept this assessment ever since it appeared in print. The word here translated as “unrefined” is even more withering in Italian: crudetta means “a bit raw,” “a little crude,” and its diminutive form distinctly reduces Verrocchio’s style (maniera) to the minor league. Vasari’s dismissive treatment is not simply a matter of taste; it is also driven by the master narrative he is trying to construct. First published in 1550 and republished in a larger revised edition in 1568, his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects traces a sweeping, triumphal trajectory of artistic development that begins with Italian masters of the late thirteenth century and culminates in the perfection (his very words) reached in his own time by his mentor and idol, Michelangelo. Verrocchio (1435–1488), born exactly forty years before that “spirit able, singlehandedly, to demonstrate, universally and in every profession, what perfection is in art,” was destined, like John the Baptist, to play the part of forerunner.
And a forerunner he certainly was. Verrocchio’s statues may lack the silken sheen of Benvenuto Cellini’s metalwork and the epic grandeur of Michelangelo’s marbles, the works that shaped artistic taste in Vasari’s time. But their achievements depended absolutely on the legacy of this man of many talents: his skill as a teacher, his pioneering experiments with casting metals, and his efforts to portray the human figure in space, not only in sculpture, but also in painting, and above all in the activity that Vasari himself considered the fundamental underpinning to every kind of art: disegno, a word that meant both drawing and design.
Furthermore, when Vasari actually begins to analyze Verrocchio’s individual works, he dispels any impression that this artist “lacked facility as much as he abounded in energy and diligence.” Indeed, the life lists a string of unequivocal successes:
A cup, whose form, full of animals, leaves, and other caprices, is known to every goldsmith, and another where there are dancing babies, very beautiful…two silver reliefs for the altar of St. John, which earned him the greatest praise and reputation…a marble relief of Our Lady from the waist up holding her Son, which was once in Palazzo Medici and is now in the chamber of the Duchess of Florence over a door, a most beautiful thing.
His verdict on Verrocchio’s tomb for Cosimo de’ Medici declares, “You cannot make a better work than this in bronze or in any cast metal, especially because at the same time [in this work] he revealed his talent for architecture.” Every detail of that project, in his view, has been “executed with great skill, judgment, and creativity.” On a less monumental scale, he reports that a fountain featuring a baby boy grasping a large fish is “truly marvelous.”
And yet the best-remembered anecdote from Vasari’s life of Verrocchio is about a painted altarpiece, the Baptism of Christ, and a young apprentice named Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci:
[Andrea] painted a panel for the Friars of Vallombrosa of the moment when Saint John baptizes Christ. For this work Leonardo da Vinci was assisting, a young man at the time and his pupil, and he painted an Angel with his own hands that was much better than anything else. For that reason Andrea resolved never to touch paint again, because Leonardo, at such a young age, was so much more skilled in that art than he.
The blond angel is indeed beautiful, and visitors to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where the painting normally hangs, have been conditioned for centuries to contrast the little angel’s supple grace with the stiff, dry figures of the Baptist and Christ. Intriguingly, however, the most recent analyses of the Baptism of Christ ascribe the figure of Christ to—Leonardo. If Jesus looks stiff and rugged at his baptism, it must be for a reason, and he is, in fact, standing ankle-deep in a chilly stream to receive what Italians call a gavettone, an unexpected shower. The contrast between the adult man’s rigid stance and the relaxed pose of the angel, a perpetually youthful divine messenger, helps to emphasize the vulnerable humanity of an individual whose life is changing dramatically before our eyes.
In 2019 attention has finally been paid to Andrea del Verrocchio with two splendid exhibitions, each accompanied by an ambitious catalog. The first of these took place this past summer in his native Florence, in Palazzo Strozzi, a fifteenth-century structure in the very heart of the city where Verrocchio built his career and spent most of his life. Here, the title “Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo” connected the exhibition with the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo’s death. The curators, Francesco Caglioti and Andrea De Marchi, divided their introductory essays between “Verrocchio the Sculptor” and “Verrocchio the Painter” and flanked works by the master himself with works by his pupils and contemporaries.
A few months later and a continent away, Washington’s National Gallery gathered many of the same works for “Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence,” curated by Andrew Butterfield, and focused on presenting the artist and his Florentine patrons, the Medici, to the North American public. Catalog essays therefore include an eloquent introduction to the artist’s significance by Butterfield, whose The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio (1997) remains a landmark study,* and Charles Dempsey’s presentation of the Medici family in its favorite haunts, worldly bankers fascinated by the classical world and by the scholars who brought it alive for fifteenth-century Florentines. Expert discussions of Verrocchio’s work as a sculptor, painter, and draftsman also include illuminating technical studies of the lengths to which a Renaissance artist might go to turn a vision of beauty into a real object.
Continuing the Florentine theme, New York’s Frick Collection has dedicated a revelatory show this fall to Verrocchio’s contemporary Bertoldo di Giovanni, another Medici protégé whose small bronze statues and relief sculptures really do have a wild, untamed quality to them, and thus provide a revealing foil to Verrocchio. The bronze sculpture in which they both excelled was a new medium in fifteenth-century Florence, and their work breathes all the excitement of experimentation and rapid change. Bertoldo, despite his talent, receives only fleeting mention in Vasari’s lives of his teacher, Donatello, and of Michelangelo, who came to sketch in the Medici garden where Bertoldo served as caretaker and teacher (he was too old to sculpt anymore, Vasari reports, but still sharp-witted enough to give excellent advice, this ancient sage of seventy). If Verrocchio’s reputation in the Lives has fallen victim to a larger historical scheme of progress, Bertoldo’s has suffered from one of the basic realities of a Florentine artist’s life: the system of master, apprentice, and workshop, which put children to labor at an early age and made many if not most works of art a collective venture. Bertoldo, Vasari reports, grew so good at emulating Donatello’s style that their hands became difficult to distinguish.
We do not know whether Verrocchio took on his own master’s style, but he did take on his master’s identity. Andrea del Verrocchio was a nickname that Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni acquired during his apprenticeship to a goldsmith whose name, Verrocchio, Tuscan for “little hog,” was itself a nickname. “Andrea del Verrocchio,” “Verrocchio’s Andrea,” expresses the almost parental bond between master and apprentice in Renaissance Florence—in fact Vasari refers to Bertoldo di Giovanni as his master Donatello’s “foster child.” In any event, Andrea del Verrocchio was a far more distinctive identification for a man named Andrew than the alternative, Andrea di Francesco, “son of Francis.” Francis of Assisi was immensely popular in Florence, and the city was filled with males named Francesco, but only one goldsmith nicknamed “little hog.”
Virtually nothing is known about the goldsmith Verrocchio, and we know surprisingly little about his onetime apprentice Andrea, and less still about what Andrea did before the age of thirty. He never married, and if Vasari’s praise for his industrious habits are any indication, his art may have been his life, and his workshop his family. As the master of a workshop in his own right, he seems to have encouraged his assistants to develop their individuality, and in return received a dedicated teacher’s most bittersweet reward: a student whose transcendent talent eventually moved far beyond Florence, and Andrea del Verrocchio, and the entire artistic profession, with its guilds and guidelines. For all his life, Andrea remained a workingman, although he and his generation of Florentine artists did a great deal to improve the value society accorded them and their labors. His student Leonardo, on the other hand, became a true celebrity.
By the time we can begin to trace his career, Andrea del Verrocchio is already connected with the Medici, beginning—perhaps—with commissions like the “truly marvelous” fountain that Vasari mentions, with its winged baby boy holding a very large fish. Florentines called these winged babies spiritelli, “little sprites” (as Charles Dempsey first pointed out), delighting in their chubby limbs and toddler pranks, well aware that their pedigree went all the way back to the ancient Etruscans. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who depicted infants and children as miniature adults, the Etruscans and Romans portrayed their bambini as real bambini, and imagined a world peopled by divine winged tots carrying out grown-up tasks.
Verrocchio’s Spiritello with a Fish, one of the focal points of both the Florence and the Washington exhibitions, may have been cast for Piero de’ Medici, to adorn a fountain in the courtyard of the family palazzo built by his powerful father, Cosimo (where one of the relief sculptures on the walls, probably executed by Bertoldo di Giovanni, shows charmingly chubby cupids pushing and pulling the chariot of love). On the other hand, the Spiritello’s delicately balanced pose and boldly fluttering drapery may suggest a later stage of its creator’s career. Caglioti’s exhibition catalog dates the work to between 1470 and 1475, in which case the patron commissioning the statue is no longer Piero, who died in 1469, but his son Lorenzo, who took over the helm of Florence from his father at the age of twenty and immediately revealed himself to be as shrewd and charismatic as his late grandfather Cosimo. The Washington catalog suggests that the Spiritello could have been created anytime between 1465 and 1480, from the latter years of Piero de’ Medici to the mid-career of Lorenzo, an indication of how many mysteries attach to the lives of fifteenth-century artists, no matter how illustrious they were in their own day.
On some occasions, the vast archives of Florence and other Italian cities preserve contracts between patrons and artists, and other clues about day-to-day life (like Bertoldo di Giovanni’s chronic reluctance to pay his rent), but our sense of Verrocchio’s professional life is still primarily based, in our day as in Vasari’s, on the evidence of the works themselves. What the Spiritello with a Fish certainly shows us is a trained goldsmith experimenting with new alloys of bronze, a sculptor experimenting with poses that will reward a viewer from any and every possible viewpoint, and a baby face that lays claim to more worldly knowledge than a human infant could possibly muster. This Spiritello bears more than a passing resemblance to the captivating drawing of a toddler’s face in metalpoint, brown ink wash, and white gouache (opaque paint) that may come from Vasari’s own collection. In both Florence and Washington it is identified, convincingly, as Verrocchio’s own work, although the sheet has also been attributed in the past to Andrea’s student Lorenzo di Credi. Comparing the Spiritello to the drawing, a possibility uniquely afforded by the exhibitions, helps to seal the connection between the two-dimensional rendering and the three-dimensional bronze, and bring us back to the mind that probably created both.
Verrocchio’s famous statue David with the Head of Goliath definitely numbers among his earliest known works. Cast perhaps in 1465 for Piero de’ Medici, it may well be his first large effort in bronze. David was one of the symbols of Florence, small, swift, and intelligent, a biblical example of good government as well as a poet and musician, the perfect Renaissance hero for the quintessential Renaissance city. As its corresponding classical hero, Florence chose Hercules, another small man but strong. Hercules was also a herder of cattle, an important role among the consumers of those massive slabs of meat called Florentine beefsteak, though both the taste for slabs of meat and the cattle surely came into the region with the Etruscans. The lightning-quick Tuscans preferred to overlook Hercules’ reputation for slightly dim wits.
David’s name means “beloved” in Hebrew, and the Bible portrays him as a man of intense passions. Donatello had already sculpted two versions of the poet-king, in marble and bronze, and it is the bronze, cast sometime after Andrea’s birth (perhaps around 1440), that provides him with his model and his challenge. This David is hardly more than a boy, classically nude, the first freestanding nude statue since antiquity, except for his toeless boots and his elaborate hat with its laurel wreath to symbolize victory over the giant. With one foot poised on Goliath’s severed head, he holds his slingshot and pellets in his left hand and an outsized sword in his right, smiling to himself as a feathery wing from Goliath’s helmet provocatively strokes his inner thigh. The bronze’s erotic charge is as undeniable as its meaning is elusive.
In contrast to Donatello’s languid nude, Verrocchio has clothed his tense, alert David in an elaborate leather jerkin and fringed skirt; the Washington catalog suggests plausibly that this may be the robe that Jonathan gave him just after he slew Goliath:
Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.
And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. (I Samuel 18:3–4)
The statue’s elaborate detailing and gilded surfaces reflect Verrocchio’s formative experience as a goldsmith. The bronze of David’s skin, skirt, and jerkin has been polished to a gleaming smoothness, while his hair, boots, fringes, and the jerkin’s embroidered edging have been carefully chiseled and chased (pushed into shape) after casting; Renaissance sculptors literally carved metal as well as wood and marble. It has often been suggested that the model for this lithe, self-assured youth was the young Leonardo da Vinci, universally regarded as a handsome and elegant man throughout his life. In fact, early portraits of Leonardo show a similarly broad face, straight nose, and heavy brow with upward-slanting eyebrows, as well as a shock of curly red hair. David was a redhead too, and a musician, as were both Leonardo and his master. What other teenaged apprentice in Verrocchio’s studio could better have impersonated this charismatic future king of hot passions and infinite talents? When Michelangelo carved his own marble David between 1501 and 1504, he created a powerful nude as remarkable for the fierceness of his concentration as for the splendor of his body (which is a small man’s body despite its towering height). Both the figure’s general pose and his heroic scowl are inspired directly by Verrocchio, inspired in turn by Donatello, but perhaps also by Verocchio’s wondering, as he worked, just what visions were dancing inside young Leonardo’s head.
No record survives for the marble half-length statue Lady with Flowers; almost everything that can be said about it is a matter of informed conjecture—or rapturous appreciation. Marble busts of young Florentine women were popular among wealthy families in the fifteenth century, usually showing the sitters with downcast eyes, long hair carefully coiffed and contained, their faces and figures practically transformed into abstract geometric shapes. Lady with Flowers breaks marvelously free of that mold: asymmetrical, active, with a quizzical expression on her face, this lady is ready to meet the gaze of her viewers. Rather than a static bust, she is a lively figure, with graceful arms and impossibly long-fingered hands clutching a posy of violets to her slender breast. Other flowers are twined in the long hair that is gathered behind her head into an uneven coil (see illustration below). Carved and polished with exquisite mastery, she has been attributed to Verrocchio on the basis of the quality of her workmanship and her striking individuality, and dated to about 1475–1480, in his full maturity. She may be Lucrezia Donati, the mistress of Lorenzo il Magnifico, or Smeralda (“Emerald”) Ceccherini, a forebear of the statue’s first known owner, or some other Florentine beauty. Beyond doubt, she is a personality.
Verrocchio also worked in the ancient Etruscan medium of terracotta. The discovery of terracotta portrait busts in Etruscan tombs may well have inspired the revival of that art form in the fifteenth century, as in Andrea’s portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s popular, attractive brother, murdered by conspirators from the rival Pazzi family at Sunday Mass in Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478. (Lorenzo escaped with a shoulder wound.) A screaming Medusa, clearly inspired by Etruscan examples, dominates Giuliano’s gorgeously intricate breastplate, its reddish clay once painted in blue, red, green, and black (and in fact Giuliano wore armor with this motif). Like the Lady with Flowers, but more emphatically, he cocks his head at an angle, and that slight motion, as it ripples down from neck to shoulders, brings this baked clay person startlingly to life.
Both exhibitions also focus on Andrea del Verrocchio’s drawings and paintings, ranged alongside those of, among others, his onetime apprentice Leonardo. Here, as in his sculpture, we see a whole spectrum of techniques, further clues to this versatile artist’s eternal quest for self-improvement. Drawing formed the basis of the Tuscan artistic tradition, its insights transferred to every other medium, from jewelry-making to embroidery to the Vasarian triad of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Andrea made studies of drapery with dramatic white highlights on a darkened ground, studies of faces old and young, fat babies, grotesque dancing men, and the carefully measured figure of a handsome horse, the basis for his massive equestrian monument in Venice to the mercenary warrior Bartolomeo Colleoni (which stands on a pedestal with three pillars on each of its long sides; Colleoni, whose nickname meant “testicles,” was rumored to have three of them). Some are quick sketches, some are delicately modeled, almost complete in themselves.
The paintings, notably a Madonna and Child with Two Angels that has featured in both exhibitions, display a sculptor’s command of figures in space through the expert management of light and shade. Verrocchio favored a particular kind of heart-shaped face, with the upper lip prominent in a cupid’s-bow mouth, a thin, prominent nose, a long distance between nose and lip, and nearly invisible eyebrows. The two angels in this painting are perfect examples of it, as similar as brothers, and closely related to the face of the beautiful angel in the Baptism of Christ, the one that supposedly drove Andrea to put down his paintbrush forever. The artist’s stylized hands are just as distinctive, in both his painting and his sculpture, on men and women alike, with each long, tapering finger always posed to its most graceful advantage. His own busy hands must never have had time to pose like this.
These are Andrea del Verrocchio’s qualities, and he passed them on to his students: Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Leonardo da Vinci, among many others. He was more successful as a trainer of painters than of sculptors, although he also exerted an immense influence on artists, like Michelangelo, who never passed directly through his workshop. There seems to be no end to his inventiveness, to his ability to capture noise, motion, passion, and fleeting thoughts by any means he could and hold it for our endless delight. Whether in the heart of his native Tuscany or in the stately precincts of the National Gallery, he epitomizes what the Renaissance of art in Florence was all about.