Over the course of the history of art since the fifteenth century in Europe, it is not surprising to find cases where students of a particular artist have very nearly eclipsed the reputations of their teachers. This, unfortunately, could probably be said about the subject of a superb exhibit currently on view at the National Gallery. While the artist’s name, Andrea del Verrocchio, and the importance of his shop are known to art historians, popular knowledge of him has been completely obscured by the justifiable fame of his apprentice, Leonardo da Vinci, as well as that of another of his students, Botticelli.
To be fair, this prejudice against Quattrocento artists (that is, of the Italian 15th Century) is hardly the public’s fault. Anyone who has taken Art History II in college will be familiar with the comparison of Verrocchio’s figures in the Uffizi Baptism of Christ with the angel painted by Leonardo in the lower left, as well as the misty landscape behind them. This exhibit aims at correcting this. And, indeed, the most important takeaway for me, as an art historian, was the impressive dynamism of Verrocchio’s drawings, a number of which are on view here, and the extraordinary energy of his sculpture, especially in the two major bronze works included in the exhibit.
Among the received notions about Verrocchio is that he reused drawings that were not based on actual observation of nature, and that therefore his knowledge of human anatomy was almost comical in many works—to wit, the figure of St. John in the above mentioned Baptism. Yet, as revealed in the copious and lavishly illustrated catalogue accompanying this exhibit, Verrocchio did indeed make drawings from the model which, in many cases, not only reveal his extraordinary skill, but his interest in capturing natural movement and character directly from nature.
For example, the catalogue illustrates a sheet of what art teachers call “gesture drawings” of an infant in multiple poses. Although this drawing is, lamentably, not in the exhibit, it does give us interesting proof that the idea for drawings like this, taken quickly from the model in short poses for which Leonardo is so well known, were actually something the latter did not invent, but rather developed from the example of Verrocchio. The difference is clearly in the translation of these drawings into finished paintings. Where the liveliness and naturalism of Leonardo’s gesture drawings from as early as his multitude of studies of infants and cats for a lost (or never painted) Madonna and Child with a Cat or those for the Uffizi Adoration of the Magi (1480), are still evident in that unfinished work, that energy doesn’t often make it into Verrocchio’s paintings.
Nevertheless, what one comes away with on seeing this exhibit is the fact that contrary to long held conventional art historical notions, the student (Leonardo) did indeed benefit significantly from his study with the master (Verrocchio), and the drawings of that master are evidence not only of his skill, but of his interest in a more life-based drawing practice than that of many of his contemporaries. Verrocchio was an innovator, and this exhibit, and the scholarship, research and re-evaluation of his work made available in the accompanying catalogue, constitute major advances in our understanding of fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance art. The categories were never so clear, and seeing Verrocchio in a new light helps us to understand the evolution of style and ideas about the aims of artists working in the last quarter of the Quattrocento, including Leonardo, were after.
Facing the entrance in the first room of the exhibition is Verrocchio’s David with the Head of Goliath, a cast bronze figure with some gilding of 1465-1470. At almost 48 inches tall, he is slightly smaller than life size, but stands on a marble pedestal that makes him appear larger. The figure is seen in an apparently relaxed pose, his head turned to the left, his face enlivened by a satisfied smile. Yet, his wiry adolescent constitution and tense musculature, the rather mannered position of his left hand, and the highly burnished surface of the bronze give him a tense appearance—very much in sync with the aesthetic of the later Florentine Quattrocento.
However, it is in the next room that the viewer will see that it was in sculpture that the naturalism and the liveliness of the master’s drawings find their fullest realization. Two well-lit boxes on elevated pedestals confront the viewer. One contains Verrocchio’s amazing bronze Putto with a Dolphin, while the other contains the National Gallery’s own Putto Poised on a Globe made of unbaked clay over an iron armature. Both clearly show the translation of the animation of the gesture drawings into sculpture, and Verrocchio’s quite remarkably dynamic approach in these infant figures. This is particularly evident in the bronze which is almost baroque in its exciting, activated pose, begging views from every angle. The twisting action of the putto’s body and the upward energy of the dolphin he grasps convey movement that was clearly planned for viewing in the round, anticipating this kind of work by later sixteenth and even seventeenth century artists, and was perhaps Verrocchio’s strongest attempt at a deliberately classicizing figure.
The clay Putto on a Globe is probably contemporary with the gestural drawing mentioned above. His stretching forward, and balletic arabesque seem a direct realization of a few of the infants in the recto of that drawing that show the artist developing more elegant positions from the life studies.
The formality and conventionality of pose and dress that is seen in Verrocchio’s paintings is comparable to that seen in other artists from this period in Florence, as is also made evident in this exhibition in works made by artists in Verrocchio’s circle. To see this, once again compare Verrocchio’s putti or gestural studies with a major painting in the exhibit of a Madonna and Child with Two Angels (c. 1470-74) carried out in the collaborative “shop” method where the master painted the main figure and the angels are by assistants; in this case Leonardo and Perugino.
The Madonna’s solemn pose, hands in prayer over a Child sustained on her lap by an elegant but bored looking angel is typical of this kind of picture at that moment in art history. Yet, one needs to remember that these paintings were made as vehicles of worship—not merely as works of art—and that the conventionality seen in them was, at the time, both expected and admired. Returning to the verso of the life studies, one sees Verrocchio struggling with ways to transform these into a newly heroic representation of the Christ Child, a pursuit that would also be seen in Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, and would have continued influence on later religious art. Indeed, it was with these same artists that we begin to see the kinds of religious pictures that seem to transcend the function of icon and head toward the idea of a work of art reflecting the genius of the artist. The works in this exhibition, broadened by the research and analysis that went into creating it, should help us to re-evaluate Verrocchio’s critical position at the beginnings of this transition.
Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, curated by Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, West Building, September 15, 2019 – January 12, 2020. For more information, see https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2019/andrea-del-verrocchio-renaissance-florence.html
 This work, most probably representing Cupid, was made for a fountain at the Medici villa at Carreggi. It was later moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. The dolphin is an attribute of Cupid’s mother Venus. Cf. Verrocchio, Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, Exhibition catalogue, ed. Andrew Butterfield, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 2019, pp. 122-126.