The Master’s Master

Andrea del Verrocchio's Madonna and Child with Two Angels, circa 1470–1474
National Gallery, London
Andrea del Verrocchio: Madonna and Child with Two Angels, circa 1470–1474

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,…

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