Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1434/1437–1488) won acclaim as a sculptor and painter in Florence during the later fifteenth century, an age of extraordinary artistic flowering and enlightened patronage. A favored artist of the ruling Medici family, he created enduring monuments in stone, bronze, clay, and precious metals for the honor and magnificence of the city. Verrocchio’s sculptures are distinguished by an exceptional dynamism, with expressive figures that reward viewing from multiple angles.
Trained as a goldsmith, he attained consummate mastery of a wide range of materials and techniques, especially bronze casting. These he practiced in monumental sculptures for church and civic settings, and in smaller secular and devotional works for the domestic realm. His statues and reliefs combine meticulously observed realism with idealized beauty derived from the study of antiquity, and they display an unmatched skill in rendering ornamental detail.
Verrocchio was also celebrated as a painter and draftsman, and his workshop became a training ground for the preeminent painters of the High Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci.
Andrea del Verrocchio, Giuliano de' Medici, c. 1475/1478, terracotta with traces of polychromy, National Gallery of Art, Washington (on view)
Putto with a Dolphin
Among the highlights of Verrocchio’s career and the present exhibition is the bronze Putto with a Dolphin (c. 1465/1480), which originally decorated a fountain at the Medici villa at Careggi outside Florence. Depicting a joyful, winged nude infant balancing on one foot and clutching a spirited dolphin, it is the first work of the Renaissance intended to be equally beautiful from all angles as the viewer walks around it. The statue conveys a sense of twisting movement and incipient life, as the child extends his wings and turns his head to the right, counterbalancing the weight on his left foot and the body of the wriggling animal. This pose anticipates the serpentine figures of High Renaissance painters and sculptors. Verrocchio’s masterpiece may evoke an ancient bronze sculpture of Eros, the child god of love, as described by the classical Greek author Callistratus in a book belonging to the Medici family:
You might have seen the bronze losing its hardness and becoming marvelously delicate in the direction of plumpness. . . it looked bright and fresh . . . though it was fixed solidly on a pedestal, it deceived one into thinking that it possessed the power to fly. It was filled with joy even to laughter, the glance from the eyes was ardent and gentle.
Like artists of the ancient past, Verrocchio infused his works with remarkable passion and spirit—whether of joy, laughter, grace, strength, courage, or devotion. The presentations below, encompassing works in the exhibition as well as large monuments that cannot travel, offer a closer look at the master’s lively rendering of form in both monumental sculpture and painting.
Andrea del Verrocchio, Putto with a Dolphin, c. 1465/1480, bronze, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (on view)
Verrocchio mastered the techniques of marble carving and bronze casting by the mid-1460s. Marble offered an ideal medium for tombs and portrait busts, while cast bronze proved exceptionally strong and durable, permitting the artist to conceive dramatic figures of impressive size and freedom of movement. The artist completed his earliest monumental bronzes, including the statue of David dated about 1465, for the ruling Medici family. During the same period, he began to experiment with combinations of bronze, marble, and other stones in his tombs for the Medici in the church of San Lorenzo. Building upon the achievements of an earlier generation of Florentine masters, Verrocchio opened new possibilities for large-scale statues and reliefs commemorating heroes and saints. The images below feature works by Verrocchio—both sculptures in the exhibition and monuments that could not be removed from their architectural settings in Florence—as well as comparisons with the art of other Florentine masters.
David and Goliath
Andrea del Verrocchio, David with the Head of Goliath (detail), c. 1465, bronze with partial gilding, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (on view)
David, the biblical hero and future king of Israel who achieved victory over a tyrannical adversary, was embraced by Florentines as a symbol of liberty and good government. Verrocchio’s bronze statue presents him as an elegant youth standing in triumph over the head of the giant Goliath, the leader of the enemy Philistines. David holds Goliath’s sword in one hand and rests the other on his hip in a gesture of confident triumph. This impressive sculpture was commissioned by the Medici who sold it in 1476 to the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government at the heart of Florence.
Verrocchio’s David would have invited comparison with an earlier sculpture of the hero by the artist’s renowned predecessor, Donatello—the first monumental bronze statue since antiquity. Donatello rendered the boy nearly nude and lost in contemplation, while Verrocchio’s youth is extroverted and wears a lavish close-fitting jacket with gilded ornament, demonstrating the master’s experience as a goldsmith. This may be Verrocchio’s earliest statue cast in bronze, with an exceptionally smooth surface and details achieved partly by carving the cooled metal with chisels.
The Medici Tombs
Upon the death in 1464 of Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici, the leader of Florence for thirty years, Verrocchio was commissioned to create his floor tomb in the church of San Lorenzo. The vast sepulcher, unprecedented in Florentine tomb sculpture for its scale and magnificence, consists of an abstract patterned floor slab in front of the high altar connecting to a burial chamber in the crypt beneath. The artist used valuable materials—bronze, marble, red porphyry and green serpentine stones—to suggest Cosimo’s prestige. Interlocking ellipses within a circle and square evoke medieval diagrams of the universe, associating the name of Cosimo with the cosmos.
In the early 1470s Verrocchio completed another Medici tomb in the church of San Lorenzo: a double sepulcher for Giovanni and Piero, the sons of Cosimo. The grand sarcophagus stands in an opening between two spaces of the church, a chapel and the sacristy (the room in which sacred vessels and clothing are kept). The tomb is fashioned from red porphyry, a precious hard stone used in ancient imperial monuments, inlaid with green serpentine roundels and surrounded with copious bronze foliage in an antique style. Clusters of acanthus leaves cover the corners of the tomb and spill over the top, flowering into four cornucopias. Verrocchio fashioned a fine net of twisted bronze ropes filling a marble arch that frames the sarcophagus and set it on a platform supported by bronze tortoises. The result is a multimedia masterpiece of carving and casting which, upon its unveiling, was hailed by Florentines as “one of the wonders of the world.”
Christ and Saint Thomas
Verrocchio’s masterpiece is the great bronze group of Christ and Saint Thomas for an exterior niche of Orsanmichele, the grain market and church supported by the professional trade guilds of Florence. The work illuminates the episode in which the resurrected Jesus told the apostle Thomas, who did not believe that Christ had risen miraculously from the dead, to “put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.” The monumental figure of Christ, elevated above Thomas on a step inside the niche, lifts an arm in blessing and reveals the wound in his chest, while the incredulous apostle steps toward him from the outside ledge and tentatively raises his hand. Verrocchio’s graceful choreography allows both figures to occupy the limited space.
The figures’ noble gestures and solemn expressions impart a sense of majesty. As Verrocchio worked on the ensemble over a period of sixteen years, he continually posed himself new challenges—devising deeper and more intricate drapery folds and ever more elaborate surface details. Upon the sculpture’s unveiling in 1483, admirers described it as “the most beautiful work there is” and “the most beautiful head of Christ ever made.”
The Silver Altar
Verrocchio contributed this relief panel to a silver altar honoring John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, in the city’s baptistery. The fine design represents the sculptor’s only surviving work in silver. The background is executed in a repoussé technique, with the forms hammered outward from the reverse side of the sheet. The figures were made separately and attached to this surface. In the dramatic scene of the saint’s martyrdom, John kneels at left as the executioner prepares to behead him with a gilded sword. The richly inventive armor of the figures testifies to Verrocchio’s command of precious metalwork for ornament, while the classical setting with arcade and floor tiles receding in perspective imparts narrative unity to the scene.
Before casting the figures of the silver altar panel, Verrocchio experimented with terracotta models. In this preliminary design for the sword-bearing executioner, the artist developed his ideas in clay by hand, likely while observing an assistant posing in the studio. For this reason, the man appears nude in the model and holds a rag, while in the finished relief he wears a loincloth and brandishes a sword. The poses of the executioner in the model and silver sculpture are nearly identical, but in the final work, the facial features have evolved to become younger and more anxious than in the determined visage of the terracotta. This sculpture in clay constitutes a rare surviving example of a preparatory model for fifteenth-century Italian sculpture.
The Forteguerri Monument
In 1476 Verrocchio won the commission for a monument to Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri in the cathedral of his native Pistoia, northwest of Florence. The cenotaph, or sepulchral monument in honor of a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere, was intended to be a giant picture in marble. This terracotta model reveals the artist’s innovative plan for the sculpture, with Forteguerri kneeling in prayer and looking up to the figure of Christ surrounded by angels. These were to be accompanied by life-size figures of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Not yet complete by the time of the sculptor’s death in 1488, the work was significantly altered in the seventeenth century. This model provides the clearest idea of Verrocchio’s ambitious vision for what would have been among the largest pictorial reliefs of the Renaissance.
Monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni
Verrocchio’s final work of monumental sculpture was the bronze equestrian statue of the mercenary captain Bartolomeo Colleoni for the city of Venice. It presents the fearsome commander in armor astride a muscular horse with flowing mane. The steed raises his left foreleg—an impressive technical feat which required balancing the heavy bronze on three thin legs. It was the most naturalistic freestanding bronze equestrian statue cast since antiquity.
In his ambitious design for the Colleoni monument, Verrocchio sought to outdo Donatello’s 1453 equestrian sculpture, known as Gattamelata, in the Piazza del Santo of Padua, the first such statue made during the Renaissance. Although Verrocchio had not completed his monument to Colleoni by the time of the artist’s death in 1488, the final ensemble (cast by the Venetian Alessandro Leopardi) remains a testament to his dynamic vision for public sculpture.
Verrocchio the Painter: Assistants and Collaborators
Verrocchio trained not only as a goldsmith and sculptor, but also as a painter, probably with the early Renaissance master Fra Filippo Lippi. Verrocchio’s altarpieces and devotional pictures are distinguished by their emphatic sense of three-dimensional space and volume, derived from his experience in sculpture. They reveal a subtle play of light and shadow, and fine detail in the rendering of objects such as veils, cloths, and brooches. The artist ran a busy workshop with many gifted collaborators and students, including Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Sandro Botticelli. Leonardo spent his formative years in the master’s studio, where he learned to model in light and dark and to depict energetically twisting figures. Above all, Leonardo and other pupils acquired from Verrocchio a spirit of inquiry and experimentation in the making of art. As a Florentine humanist wrote in the early 1500s, “Whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring.” The images below comprise works in the exhibition as well as the large Baptism of Christ, a collaborative effort of Verrocchio, Leonardo, and assistants.
This scene of the Madonna and Christ child seated before a landscape counts among Verrocchio’s most accomplished paintings. The lively movement of the infant Jesus is met by the calm devotion of his mother, who lowers her eyes as she balances his weight on her lap. The artist conceived the figures with an impressive sense of volume, modeling the forms in bold relief. Deep shadows and strong highlights on the face of Mary and the body of the Christ child lend the figures a palpable presence. The sheer headdress of the Virgin and the garments and veil wrapped around the child are realized in exceptionally sensitive detail.
The arms of the infant Jesus, extended toward Mary in a dynamic gesture observed from nature, are strongly defined cylindrical shapes. These rhyme with Verrocchio’s depictions of child figures in sculpture, such as the Putto Poised on a Globe, also in the exhibition.
Verrocchio’s magisterial Baptism of Christ represents the complexity of artistic collaboration in the Renaissance. The artist first designed the overall scene and painted the figure of John the Baptist at right, striding forward as he anoints Christ with waters from the river Jordan. In addition to conceiving the central figure of Christ, the master probably also painted the adjacent angel with folded hands and the rocks at right. At a certain point, however, Verrocchio ceased work on the monumental panel, leaving its completion to at least two assistants—an unknown artist who completed the dove, the hands of God the Father, and the gold rays above; and Leonardo da Vinci, the budding genius who was responsible for the divine angel at far left and parts of the mystical landscape in the background.
While Verrocchio used tempera (pigments mixed with water and egg yolk), Leonardo painted the angel in oil, lending the figure an otherworldly presence and an expression of beatific adoration, with a head of fine golden hair, brocaded sleeves, and a lustrous pearl-encrusted collar. The artist also painted the valley landscape behind, whose flowing water and distant mountains demonstrate the young artist’s profound understanding of the rhythms of nature. As the early biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote, “In this work [Verrocchio] was assisted by Leonardo da Vinci, his disciple, then quite young, who painted therein an angel with his own hand.”
Verrocchio likely completed this large devotional painting with the assistance of Leonardo da Vinci and Pietro Perugino, another talented young pupil. The Madonna, her hands meeting in prayer, gazes upon the Christ child in her lap, who is supported by an angel at right. Verrocchio’s hand can be identified in the flipped cloak on the shoulder of this angel, the gold and green brocade lining of Mary’s robe, and the two beautiful jeweled brooches. The face of the Virgin and other details of the angel at right were probably completed by Perugino, while Leonardo’s work can be seen in the reverent angel on the opposite side, who delicately holds a lily, and in passages of the landscape behind.
This masterful painting illuminates the biblical story of Tobit, a blind man who sent his son, Tobias, to collect a debt. The youth was accompanied by the archangel Raphael, who instructed him to extract the heart, liver, and gall from a fish as a cure for his father’s blindness. Tobias at right steps forward gallantly, his arm entwined with that of the angel. The sculptural quality of the figures’ faces and the lavish detail of their garments reveal the hand of Verrocchio, while the young Leonardo may have painted the gutted fish on a string in Tobias’s hand and the small dog at the feet of the angel.
Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474–1478, oil (obverse) and tempera (reverse) on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund (on view)
Leonardo da Vinci may have painted this early portrait of the Florentine Ginevra de’ Benci while still a pupil in Verrocchio’s workshop. Seated before a shimmering landscape seen through a veil of light and atmosphere, the young Ginevra regards the viewer with a sober gaze befitting her virtue and chastity. The young woman’s spiraling curls, the detailed representation of her modest costume, and the sculptural quality of her porcelain features owe a profound debt to Verrocchio.
Leonardo’s panel, which has been cut along the bottom edge, likely originally displayed Ginevra at nearly waist length with her hands delicately holding a sprig of flowers. This innovative design, unprecedented in Florentine female painted portraiture of the period, draws inspiration from Verrocchio’s marble busts. His Lady with Flowers of the same period portrays a young woman with her hands crossed and holding a small bouquet of flowers to her chest.
The Lady with Flowers may echo a lost portrait that Verrocchio painted of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s beloved Lucrezia Donati. In the love poems Lorenzo composed for her, he dwelled on the beauty of her hands and described her holding flowers. One of his sonnets begins: “O fresh and lovely violets, gathered by the fairest of hands…” According to his autobiography, “These violets thus gathered, she sent me as a gift.” Like Lorenzo’s poetry, Verrocchio’s sculpture may reflect medieval and Renaissance romance literature in which the exchange of flowers symbolized pure, courtly love.