The enduring legacy of Andrea Verrocchio

A Florence exhibition celebrates one of the most influential artists you’ve never heard of

“The Baptism of Christ”, c.1472-75, by Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have painted one of the angels

The first thing to be said about a strange and fascinating exhibition — Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo, at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, until July 14 — is that its title is misleading. It makes you think that it is centred on Leonardo da Vinci, and that you will see many of Leonardo’s paintings and drawings. Well it isn’t and you won’t.

Verrocchio was indeed Leonardo’s teacher, in the sense that Leonardo was apprenticed to Verrocchio from the age of 15, leaving his workshop when he was in his early twenties. The problem is that very little of whatever Leonardo created during his period with Verrocchio survives, so the exhibition can display no more than a tiny handful of works by Leonardo. There are no paintings by him, only a few drawings, and one sculpture in wood: The Madonna and Laughing Child. It is a wonderful piece of carving — but it is far from being universally accepted as an authentic Leonardo. The Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, which owns The Madonna and Laughing Child, exhibits it with a plaque that says it is by an artist named Rossellino.

In the exhibition’s lavishly illustrated and very scholarly catalogue, Francesco Caglioti, one of the curators, bravely makes the case that The Madonna and Laughing Child is by Leonardo. And Caglioti persuaded me that it could be by the Great Man. But then so could many works that turn out not to be by Leonardo. Caglioti has no killer fact, nothing that proves The Madonna and Laughing Child is Leonardo’s work: he merely shows that the work’s style, and its history, are compatible with its being by Leonardo — which is not quite the same as showing that Leonardo was its author. But when you look closely at this extraordinary piece, you come to realise that the identity of its maker doesn’t matter that much: it is a masterpiece whoever created it. The only thing that is changed by attributing it to Leonardo is its monetary value, which increases by a factor of around a million.

If the exhibition isn’t really about Leonardo, it nonetheless demonstrates very effectively that Andrea Verrocchio is one of the greatest, and most influential, artists that no one has ever heard of. Or almost no one. Verrocchio is well-known to specialists and to people who have studied the Italian Renaissance. But he is not a name familiar to the art-loving public at large. Crudely, Verrocchio is not box office — at least not in the way that Leonardo da Vinci certainly is: any exhibition with Leonardo in it will generate queues of people waiting to get in. Hence the organisers’ decision to hitch the name of Leonardo to the title of the exhibition. They want as many people as possible to come and see it. The tactic seems to have worked. When I visited the exhibition on a Thursday morning in March, it was teeming with people. How many of them were disappointed to see so much of Verrocchio, and so little of Leonardo, is another matter.

But in addition to generating expectations that are not fulfilled, one unfortunate effect of putting Leonardo in the title is that it makes it seem the premise of the exhibition is that the most important thing about Verrocchio is he taught Leonardo — although the curators, and the authors of its catalogue, are far too sensible, and too sensitive to the merits of Verrocchio’s work, to accept that idea. But it inevitably diminishes Verrocchio to imply, as the title does, that without his association with Leonardo, Verrocchio would be a much less significant figure.

This is wrong for many reasons, one of which is that is not clear that Verrocchio actually taught Leonardo anything. But then it is not clear that anyone could teach Leonardo anything. He famously insisted that “it is a poor pupil who does not exceed his master.” Leonardo must have been an infuriating pupil, because he always thought he knew better. For instance, Verrocchio would have been obliged to teach Leonardo the elements of fresco-painting. Leonardo seems not to have listened to anything his supposed master told him. Leonardo thought he could invent a new, better technique than the traditional one that requires the artist to paint when the plaster applied to the wall is still wet, and which therefore restricts the amount of time he can devote to any section of the composition to the time it takes the plaster to dry (about one day). Leonardo wanted more time, and he thought he had invented a technique which would give it to him. He tried his invention out when he painted The Last Supper on the wall of the refectory in the church of Santa Maria della Grazia in Milan. It didn’t work. The paint started flaking off within his lifetime, and The Last Supper is now a wreck: what you see today is mostly the work of restorers. Leonardo tried another of his new fresco techniques when he was commissioned to paint one of the walls in the council chamber of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. That fell off the wall even more quickly. Within 50 years, it was so damaged that it had to be completely painted over by another artist.

The one part of the exhibition where there is clear overlap between Verrocchio and Leonardo is the studies of drapery that they must have done at around the same time, in the same studio and perhaps even from the same model. These drawings are magnificent. But they show that Verrocchio’s relationship to Leonardo was not that of master and pupil. As regards the representation of drapery, Verrocchio had nothing to teach Leonardo: Leonardo’s drawings are already better than his master’s. Not that Verrocchio’s are anything less than wonderful, but Leonardo’s are magical. They are subtler, deeper,  more   bewitching. The way that the young Leonardo captures light falling and being reflected on folded cloth is miraculous, as is his ability to imbue the shapes of the folds with cosmic significance.

Giorgio Vasari, in the biographies he wrote of both Leonardo and Verrocchio, claims that Verrocchio recognised Leonardo’s superiority as a draughtsman, and abandoned painting because of it. Vasari cites The Baptism of Christ as the work which did the damage to Verrocchio’s self-esteem. It is perhaps Verrocchio’s most celebrated picture, largely because Leonardo is thought to have painted one of the angels, and parts of the landscape in the distance.

Oddly, The Baptism of Christ is not in the exhibition: if you want to see it, you have to walk over to the Uffizi and shuffle your way through the huge crowds there. It is worth it, because it is a fascinating work. But the exhibition’s curators are adamant that Verrocchio did not give up painting because of anything Leonardo contributed to The Baptism of Christ, partly because they think that Verrocchio had already stopped painting by the time it was created. Verrocchio was responsible for the composition, and probably did the cartoon on which the painting was based — but the actual brushwork was done by his pupils.

Why did Verrocchio give up painting? The curators of the exhibition make his decision seem very puzzling, almost perverse, because they make very large claims for his status as a painter, putting him in the same category as Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and Leonardo da Vinci. That seems to me an exaggeration: as a painter, he is not that good. His paintings (difficult though it is to identify when they actually are his paintings, as opposed to being the work of several of his assistants) were enormously popular among artists and patrons in the second half of the 15th century. Today, it is not easy to understand why. His finished pictures are exclusively of religious subjects, and mostly variations on the Madonna and child. They do not have the geometrical perfection of Piero della Francesca, nor the emotional impact of Fra Angelico, nor the overwhelming power of Masaccio’s best paintings — never mind the grace and mystery of Leonardo’s works.

It is a lot easier to understand Verrocchio’s decision to give up painting if you recognise that he simply thought he was a better sculptor than painter, so it made more sense to devote his time exclusively to sculpture. There is a good case to be made that Verrocchio produced carvings that are as accomplished as anything made by anyone in the 15th century: his best sculptures, such as the superb Incredulity of Thomas, which depicts Thomas inserting his hand into Christ’s wound in order to convince himself that the figure before him really is the Saviour, stand comparison with any work by Donatello.

Unfortunately, The Incredulity of Thomas is not in the Strozzi show either: for some reason, it has been placed in a special annex to the exhibition in the Bargello museum. Nor is Verrocchio’s colossal equestrian statue of the mercenary commander Bartolomeo Colleoni — but the absence of that awe-inspiring masterpiece is more understandable: it would be impossible to move it safely from outside the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, where it has been located since it was put there in 1496, eight years after Verrocchio’s death. There are some magnificent photographs of the statue in the catalogue. But there is no article devoted to it.

So who exactly was Andrea Verrocchio? He was born Andrea di Micheli di Francesco Cioni. In common with almost everything about him, there is uncertainty about his exact birth date, but it was probably in or around 1435, and he was born in Florence. Like Ghiberti and Donatello before him, and Benevenuto Cellini after him, Andrea’s initial training was not as a sculptor but as a goldsmith. He took the name “Verrocchio” from his first master, the goldsmith Francesco di Luca Verrocchio — a not uncommon practice at the time.

At the age of 17, he accidentally killed a friend named Antonio during a charming game which consisted principally of throwing stones as hard as they could at each other. Andrea seems to have escaped punishment by the Florentine state for what would now be deemed the crime of manslaughter. A bloody vendetta with the dead boy’s family was avoided when a settlement was negotiated with his relatives.

Verrocchio left Francesco’s studio soon after that incident to work with Antonio Dei, another goldsmith. When Dei went bankrupt, probably around 1456, Verrocchio decided to stop being a goldsmith and took up sculpture. He may have had a brief period in Donatello’s studio. He certainly spent time in the workshop of Donatello’s former pupil, Desiderio da Settignano. He went to Rome in the 1470s, working for Pope Sixtus IV and producing statues of the apostles for the Sistine Chapel. But he soon returned to his native Florence, where he stayed until summoned to Venice to produce the bronze statue of Colleoni. 

Verrocchio proved his prowess with the chisel in portrait busts of noblewomen. These portraits in stone are extremely fine. The earliest one, of an unknown young woman, was finished in around 1464, when Verrocchio would have been 29 and had emerged from the studio of Desiderio da Settignano to set up his own workshop (Verrocchio is documented as working on his own in 1461, when he was 26). The woman depicted may be a relative of Bartolomeo Colleoni. Colleoni was alleged to have been born with three testicles. His coat of arms had depictions of testicles on it: his name Colleoni sounds like coglioni, the Italian word for testicles, and the catalogue to the exhibition claims that “two pairs of seven testicles have been identified on the sleeves of the dress” of Verrocchio’s portrait of this young noblewoman. I couldn’t make out any testicles myself. But Gabriele Fattorini, the author of the catalogue entry on the sculpture, takes their presence to indicate that the subject could be Medea Colleoni, one of Bartolomeo’s illegitimate daughters. She died at the age of 17 and is depicted in a monument in the Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo.

Verrocchio carved The Lady with Flowers about a decade later, in 1475, and it demonstrates both his originality and his astonishing technique. This sculpture is the first to include the sitter’s arms and hands in a stone portrait bust. The effect produces a liveliness quite absent from the conventional pose. This woman engages you directly: she might even move towards you to engage you in conversation. One of her hands is playing with the small flowers on her chest: Verrocchio’s virtuoso handling of stone here anticipates Bernini in its meticulous accuracy and its intricacy.

There are two very beautiful full-sized drawings in the exhibition, which prove that Verrocchio had an extraordinary capacity to draw the human face. He became the Medici family’s favourite sculptor, although he has left almost no trace in the Medici family archives. He had a large and active workshop, with several pupils who later became famous artists in their own right.

As he grew older, Verrocchio tended to delegate the execution of his designs to his assistants, making attributions even more complicated and fraught than usual. He died in Venice in 1488, prosperous and successful. He was 53.

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo is wrong in its implication that Verrocchio’s greatest achievement was teaching Leonardo. But the catalogue’s authors may be right when they suggest that, even more than his own sculptures, paintings and drawings, Verrocchio’s greatest gift to art may have been his pupils — who included not only Leonardo, but Pietro Perugino and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Perugino taught Raphael, and Ghirlandaio taught Michelangelo. Which means that Raphael and Michelangelo, the two towering figures of Italian art — indeed of world art — both lead back to Verrocchio. It would be difficult to find an artist who had a more enduring legacy than that.