Master of Leonardo

The head of Goliath, detail of Verrocchio's famous statue of David.

As part of the celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, a new exhibition has opened at two venues in Florence, Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello. It is devoted to Andrea del Verrocchio, in whose studio Leonardo is known to have worked as a young man. It is the first time that examples of all the types of Verrocchio’s work have been gathered together. Famous above all as a sculptor in bronze, he also produced beautiful works in marble, terracotta and wood in addition to being a painter and very skilled draughtsman.

 

The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition

The first room exhibits three marble busts of women: Verrocchio’s masterpiece is the Bust of a Lady Holding Flowers, which was once attributed to his pupil Leonardo and is the first instance of a 15th-century portrait bust in which the hands are depicted. Behind it hangs an exquisite study of hands drawn by Leonardo (from Windsor Castle), so that the relationship between these two great artists is established at once. This is also a fascinating opportunity to compare the details, in very low relief, of the almost classical dress worn by Verrocchio’s lady with the two other busts here, one by Verrocchio (from the Frick Collection) and another by Desiderio da Settignano, who was arguably Verrocchio’s finest pupil.

In the second room is Verrocchio’s bronze David, beautifully exhibited so that the profile is accentuated. Another drawing by Leonardo from Windsor Castle shows clearly that he copied the head of this work when in Verrocchio’s studio: the head more than once appears on a single sheet filled with drawings by Leonardo on both sides. Here too are a group of bas-reliefs from the 1460s with heads in profile, including Verrocchio’s head of Scipio Africanus (from the Louvre) and Desiderio da Settignano’s stunning heard of Alexander the Great’s mother lent by La Granja, the royal palace near Segovia.

The paintings include works by Botticelli inspired by a work by Filippo Lippi (one of whose famous Madonnas in the Uffizi is represented by an exquisite study in metalpoint by the same artist), and two Madonnas painted in the early 1470s by Verrocchio (one from the National Gallery in London and one from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin), both with very beautiful landscapes. The remarkable head of St Jerome (in tempera on paper applied to panel) from Palazzo Pitti shows Verrocchio’s extraordinary skill in portraiture.

His skill as a draughtsman is also amply demonstrated (notably in a very unusual but highly refined metalpoint of a young woman wearing a huge jewel, from the Louvre; a metalpoint of the head of a curly-haired child from the Fitzwilliam Museum; a sheet from the Louvre covered with studies of children at play; and (both in pencil) the head of a young boy, from Berlin and of a young woman (from Christchurch in Oxford). Although we know that Verrocchio was also a frescoist, very few frescoes by him have survived so it is all the more interesting to see a fragment with St Jerome and a martyr, detached from the church of San Domenico in Pistoia.

Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, born in Fiesole, is recorded as a pupil of Verrocchio in the 1490s and a panel in marble by him made at that time has been lent by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Another pupil was Bartolomeo Gatta and his very fine large Assumption from the Museo Diocesano of Cortona is on display. From Perugia come six small rectangular panels painted in 1473 for the Oratorio di San Bernardino (and now in the Galleria Nazionale). The attribution of these exquisite works, with extraordinary architectural details and all with matching painted frames, has for long been under discussion but here they have been identified as being by several hands: two by Perugino, two by Pinturicchio and two by Sante di Apollonio del Celandro, an artist about whom almost nothing is known except that he was at work between 1475 and 1480. Perugino is known to have directed the project for the decoration of the oratory after he had been in Florence, where he frequented Verrocchio’s studio. Another painter who was in Verrocchio’s studio at that time was Domenico del Ghirlandaio: his works can be seen all over Florence, so it is specially rewarding to see two works no longer in this city: two Madonnas  (one from the Louvre and one from the Kress collection at the National Gallery of Washington) as well as a Madonna in Adoration purchased in Venice by John Ruskin in 1877 and now in the National Gallery of Edinburgh.

Verrocchio’s skill in working in terracotta is amply demonstrated and one of the most striking of these works is the statuette of a sleeping youth from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, displayed next to two drawings, one by Verrocchio and one by Leonardo. No exhibition of Verrocchio could be complete without his bronze Winged Boy with a Dolphin (the original now in Palazzo Vecchio), made for a fountain in a Medici villa and often reproduced. This charming ‘spiritello’ has just been restored. Exhibited close by is a remarkably graceful Mercury (also made as a fountain for the Medici) by Giovanni Francesco Rustici, who was one of Verrocchio’s last pupils. To remind us of Verrocchio’s famous equestrian monument in Venice to the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni, there is a drawing he made of a horse in profile, annotated with measurements to illustrate its precise proportions, which must have been used in his workshop (lent by the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

In the last room is the little terracotta Madonna and Child from the Victoria & Albert Museum, here attributed for the first time to Leonardo. (However, to the inexpert eye the attribution to Antonio Rossellino, given to it up to now, seems difficult to refute.)

There are a number of studies by Leonardo and Verrocchio of drapery, apparently made in Verrocchio’s studio. We learn that cloth would be soaked in wax or liquefied soil and then modelled on dummies so that the artists could experiment with light effects. The fascinating studies by Leonardo from the Louvre were made with brown wash, grey tempera and white lead on grey-brown prepared linen.

 

The Bargello exhibition

Verrocchio’s wonderful two-figure statue of the Incredulity of St Thomas, made for a niche in Orsanmichele, is displayed here in all its glory after restoration. Beside it are some seven terracotta busts of the Redeemer showing how Christ’s head in the bronze group, with his long flowing hair and beard, became a model for subsequent representations of the Redeemer. Perhaps the most expressive is that by Pietro Torrigiani, dating from the last years of the 15th century. An entire room is filled with a display of Crucifixes, the works of both master and pupils: the brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, Giuliano da Sangallo and Andrea Ferrucci. Ferrucci’s Crucifix, with Christ’s head dramatically fallen forward, is one of the best, made in the first years of the 16th century. The only Crucifix attributed to Verrocchio so far known is the one commissioned by the confraternity of San Girolamo and San Francesco Poverino (and now preserved in the Bargello): when restored it was found to have been made of painted cork as well as wood.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fine catalogue, but also by a smaller, very reasonably priced booklet which many visitors to this truly splendid show will want to take away with them.

 

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo’ runs at Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello until 14th July. Reviewed here by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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