Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence
Driven by a passion for inquiry and innovation, Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435–1488) worked in a variety of media, and his inventiveness is embodied in the cross-fertilization of ideas and practices among his works. Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence is the first comprehensive exhibition to present his sculptures, paintings, and drawings together as a group, showing the range not only of his materials but also of his artistic practice—from initial quick, compositional sketches to exquisite completed works.
The bronze Putto with a Dolphin (c. 1465/1480, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), which once crowned a fountain at a villa belonging to the Medici family, is the first sculpture of the Renaissance to be planned fully in the round. A favorite motif of Verrocchio's—the infant balancing on one foot—the putto's deceptively easy-looking, twisting movement foreshadows the "serpentine" poses explored by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Giambologna, and innumerable other artists in the 16th century. The forms of the putto's face and hair also provide evidence that Verrocchio studied sculpture with Desiderio da Settignano, who is represented in the Gallery's collection by two marble busts of small boys—A Little Boy (1455/1460), on view in the Gallery's West Building, Gallery 6, and The Christ Child (?) (c. 1460).
A new technical study of the Gallery's Putto Poised on a Globe (c. 1480), a rare surviving example of sculpture from the Renaissance in terra cruda (unbaked clay), explores how this fragile sculpture was created and argues for its role as an original model created by Verrocchio. In this exhibition, the clay putto appears for the first time alongside Putto with a Dolphin, offering viewers an exceptional opportunity to explore how Verrocchio worked across media, and to study together these two visions of figural movement in space.
Other works in clay include a freely handled sketch-model for the Forteguerri monument in Pistoia, with Christ enthroned amid dynamic flying angels; a stunning naturalistic figure of a muscular sleeping youth, and a jovial half-length Madonna presenting the Child as if teaching him to bless. A humble plaster relief of the Virgin and Child preserves the form of an early Verrocchio model, perhaps from the late 1460s, which became one of his most influential designs, as will be clear from the many paintings, sculptures, and drawings in the exhibition that present variations on it.
Putto Poised on a Globe is joined in the exhibition by Verrocchio's other works from the Gallery's collection: the spirited terracotta bust of Giuliano de' Medici (c. 1475/1478) and the refined marble relief of Alexander the Great (c. 1480/1485). Together with the terracotta Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1475/1485) by Verrocchio's assistant Francesco di Simone Ferrucci and the polychrome terracotta bust of Lorenzo de' Medici (possibly 1513/1520) after a design by Verrocchio, these form the most important group of sculptures associated with the artist outside of Italy.
In the exhibition, works from the Gallery's collection are shown alongside a wealth of sculptural masterpieces, several on loan to the United States for the first time. In his polychrome terracotta Madonna and Child (c. 1475/1480), Verrocchio addresses a subject common in his paintings and drawings in high relief. The exceptional Lady with Flowers (c. 1475) is the only independent marble sculpture almost unanimously attributed to Verrocchio and the sole surviving Quattrocento bust of its kind: a woman portrayed at half-length in relatively informal garments with complete arms and hands. The resemblance of this sculpture to Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci (1474/1478) in the Gallery's collection is striking in its similar pose that breaks with the Florentine tradition of portraying women bust length and in profile.
Several of the paintings in the exhibition are on view in the United States for the first time, including the powerfully expressive head of Saint Jerome (c. 1465, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina). Two paintings on loan from the National Gallery, London, show the collaborative nature of Verrocchio's workshop: Madonna and Child with Two Angels (c. 1470/1474) and Tobias and the Angel (c. 1470), both of which present evidence of Verrocchio's hand alongside Leonardo's, his most famous assistant, and others, including Pietro Perugino. Also on view in the exhibition is the much-debated Madonna Adoring the Christ Child (The Ruskin Madonna), (c. 1475/1480, National Galleries of Scotland), likely created by Domenico Ghirlandaio while still in Verrocchio's workshop, with the master's participation.
Remarkable in its use of subtle effects of light and transparency, the Madonna and Child (c. 1465/1470, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) is almost universally attributed to Verrocchio by scholars for its deeply felt spatial effects and the subtlety of its lighting. The unusually transparent and often complicated veil, a motif Verrocchio learned from Filippo Lippi, is rendered in a complex manner based on a close observation of light playing on gauzy fabric. The painting references the master's approach to the sculptural dimension of the figural group: the child's body that evokes the putti sculpted by him. Verrocchio's innovative use of sfumato in his drawings to create a sense of bodily weight and substance, beautifully demonstrated in the Head of a Woman in Christ Church, Oxford, is mirrored in the Berlin painting through an extended range of color to create deeply modeled shadows in the flesh tones. New infrared images of the Berlin painting have revealed sculptural folds in the Virgin's cloak, unexpectedly similar to John the Baptist's cloak in the Baptism of Christ (c. 1468/1475, Gallerie degli Uffizi). Other visual references, such as repeated motifs, are found throughout the works produced by artists associated with the workshop, such as exquisitely rendered brooches and jewelry, probably a reference to Verrocchio's original profession as a goldsmith.
There are only about 25 accepted sheets by Verrocchio in existence today, far fewer than by other major painters of his generation, including the Pollaiuolo brothers, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Filippino Lippi. The surviving drawings, many of which are on view in this exhibition, suggest a misty atmosphere and depict images of young men, women, and angels that are studied from living models but refined to ideal grace, as well as aged or grotesque dancers and fighters that challenge the idea of Verrocchio as an artist only of patrician elegance.
Among the works on view is the Study of the Madonna Adoring the Child (c. 1470), one of the earliest surviving drawings by Verrocchio. Cartoon for the Head of an Angel (c. 1470), almost universally accepted as his work, depicts the face of an androgynous curly-haired youth gazing downward in a manner characteristic of Verrocchio's style and a favorite expression. Some preparatory drawings for Verrocchio's sculptures and paintings are also on view, including studies of nudes—Figure Study of a Male Nude (1470/1480) and Figure Study of a Male Nude with Raised Left Arm (c. 1470/1480) and drapery studies. Studies of animals include A Walking Horse in Profile Facing Right (c. 1479/1483) and Measured Drawing of a Horse Facing Left (c. 1481/1483), perhaps made in preparation to compete for the commission to make the bronze equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, for which Verrocchio produced a winning model. Also designed for Venice, but never built, is a fantastic ducal wall tomb with windblown Virtues hovering in the air, Project for a Funerary Monument (Doge Andrea Vendramin Tomb) (1472/1488), contrasted with the ambitious Project for a Funerary Monument (Tartagni Tomb) (c. 1477/1480).
Verrocchio pushed preexisting drawing practices in new directions with his development of sfumato both in metal point and black chalk; his use of pen and ink; and his experimentation with black chalk. One of the first artists to adopt black chalk as a primary drawing tool, he melded dark tones using a damp finger or a "stump"—a tightly rolled piece of leather with a blunt or pointed tip—to create a range of infinitely fine gradations in shadowed areas. He then covered the pentimenti of black chalk where he wanted to make changes with either white gouache or a brown wash.
His importance in the history of draftsmanship is also related to his role in the development of the "drawing book," inherited from medieval and early Renaissance tradition. Verrocchio made his drawing book into a lively record of his creative process, a place to sketch ideas, develop concepts, and take notes. He adopted unconventional and intuitive procedures that allowed him to transform it from a mere record of workshop models to a place where an artist could create and invent freely. These changes would profoundly influence his pupils, especially Leonardo, whose experience with Verrocchio would lead him to constantly seek new challenges.
Verrocchio's drawings and clay models provide insight into his instincts and ambitions as an artist and had a direct influence on contemporary and younger artists, including Leonardo and Lorenzo di Credi, both of whom studied and copied them. Numerous drawings by other Florentine artists of the 1470s and 1480s are also derived from Verrocchio's works, especially the David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1465) and the Christ and Saint Thomas (c. 1467), which is not on view in the exhibition. Subtle variations in viewpoint or clothing show that these were often based on lost preliminary studies by Verrocchio that must have circulated widely and played an instructive role for an entire generation of Florentine artists. This phenomenon is exceptional in early Renaissance Florence and foreshadows what would happen in the 16th century when artists avidly copied drawings by Michelangelo.
Laurie Tylec, (202) 842-6355 or [email protected]
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Press Event: Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence
Audio, Released: September 10, 2019, (30:26 minutes)