Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Verrocchio- True Eye - The NGA Exhibit
An essay on the Art of Influence in Quattrocento Florence- By Brian Keeler
To view the exhibit of art by Andrea Verrocchio (1435-1488) the Italian polymath, but known to most of us for his sculpture and painting is to have a view through a window into the past- specifically the workings of a Florentine bodega or workshop.
My two visits to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC this fall and winter offered myself and the droves of others that flocked into this small exhibit a special opportunity to study the Italian masters work up close and in context.
Verrocchio, whose name means true eye, was taken from his master. As was the case with many renaissance painters it was not his birth name. It is safe to say Verrocchio is not a household name, but nevertheless his work was highly esteemed in his day and now receives a much overdue retrospective. What is often mentioned in the reviews of this show is that he was teacher of some of the most luminary artists of the quattrocento in Italy. His most famous student was the stellar Leonardo da Vinci, whom everyone knows. But others in the workshop under Verrocchio’s guidance included a bevy of artists whose collective talent amounted to an almost divine confluence. Among those all working together in that workshop included Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Pergugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Leonardo along with Fillipino Lippi, Luca Signorelli and many others. It is mind boggling to think of the atmosphere in this studio with this all-star grouping. Just imagine the dynamics of interaction and the high level of ideas- a novel in the making if there ever was one.
It is also intriguing to contemplate the unique nexus that Verrocchio served as, because of his role in bridging generations of other Florentine artists as well. For example, it is believed that he studied under Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor of the famous Baptistery doors in Florence. Verrocchio’s connection to his predecessor in sculpting, Donatello is obvious too, as they both created bronze statues of David that are now iconic. They both created magnificent equestrian statues as well and it is believed that Verrocchio was always endeavoring to outdo Donatello by making his work more dynamic. Those statues of David in turn informed the now more famous, if not over-publicized version of David by Michelangelo. But to appreciate the fact that Verrocchio’s legacy continued with the most prolific and gifted artists of the renaissance is nothing short of astounding. And then his student, Perugino, in turn fostered the young Raphael, who would become one of the high renaissance triumvirs along with Michelangelo and Leonardo.
All of these artists mentioned so far specialized in the figure and portraiture, as that was the need from patrons and churches at the time. Which is to say, the mission of artists during Verrocchio's era and beyond was to illustrate and express these themes in a visual language using the portrait, nude or draped figure in allegories, crucifixes and myths. The embodiment and melding of Biblical and ancient mythological themes was their charge. In fact, the ethos of the entire renaissance and humanist effort was to bring back the accomplishments and wisdom of classical Rome and Athens
There is a quote scripted on the wall of the NGA exhibit above the portrait of Ginevra de Benci that encapsulates the importance of Verrocchio. It states, “ Whatever painters have that is good they drank from Verrocchio’s spring.” This quote is attributed to Verrocchio's contemporary Giovani Santi.
When the statue (used for the above painting) of the Doubting Thomas was first displayed in Florence in 1473 these are some of the remarks of praise that were recorded. "New artistry," "Wonderous skill," and "extraordinary expertise." Also, it was called at its unveiling, " The most beautiful work there is" and "the most beautiful head of Christ ever made."
Aside from the fully realized paintings, bronzes and terracotta and ceramic statues there are objects like candleholders and jewelry designed by Verrocchio. But the drawings included in the show and book are really where the truth of the era is shown. Verrocchio is given credit for pioneering the use of black chalk to give his drawings a new articulation, modeling and subtlety never seen before. Leonardo inherited this technique and popularized the softness and nuance of rendering with his characteristic sfumato, or smoky and blended contours and lost edges. The drawings also encompass the spirit of the age, as they are really explorations and studies of life. They are also records and expressions of the individuals and not stylized formulas as with the centuries-long stint of Madonna icons.- all depicted at the same angle in a flat mode.
The hefty catalog that accompanies the NGA show is work of art in itself. The amazingly thorough and detailed essays contained within offer us an abundance of biographical and technical details. For instance, the authors can determine the artists in the workshop who worked on any given painting by “the hand” or characteristic brushwork. It was the practice in these renaissance bodegas for the apprentices to work alongside the master on any given work. The most famous of these is the Baptism of Christ in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The first biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, in his book, “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” of 1568 mentions this work in particular. Vasari points out the two angels that were reputed to have bee painted by Leonardo. There are many others in the exhibit, where the curators explain that certain hands or heads were done by Ghirlandaio or Botticelli.
On these two visits, I sketched from the statuary as often like to do. The process of drawing from these masterworks is a way to slow down and appreciate the art in ways that a cursory perusal does not afford. This exhibit presents us with a gift, a treasure trove of masterful creations to enjoy in context of their time and intellectual, spiritual and creative milieu.
The putto sketch above was done from a bronze at the NGA and it was believed to have been inspired by this passage in book owned by the Medici family in Florence.
"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."
The connection revealed between various works of art is part of the fruits that are given to us by the curators of this exhibit. For example the small portrait of Ginevra di Benci that is part of the NGA’s permanent collection is shown as being inspired by the same girl who modeled for Verrocchio’s marble bust of a Girl with Flowers. We could view the two almost simultaneously as the curator positioned them in adjacent rooms. The other main influence of teacher to student that was brought out in the exhibit was the modest sized head of an old man looking heavenward (as so many of the saintly subjects do.) Leonardo incorporated the essence of this portrait into his unfinished painting of St Jerome in the Wilderness. This large oil sketch, similar to another unfinished Leonardo work, The Adoration of the Magi offers us a look into the process of working with umber tones in an under painting- and supposedly the artist’s finger prints are evident in the paint. Leonardo used his finger to blend and smooth edges which further facilitated his chiaroscuro effects. It is also noteworthy that Leonardo spent around ten years working with Verrocchio, an inordinately long period by renaissance standards. This long apprenticeship and collaboration suggests a strong bond and productive relationship.
As the exhibits of renaissance artists are brought to us in our American museums they often evoke my memories of walking down the very streets in Urbino, Rome, Spoletto, Florence, Siena and many other towns were these artists worked. Even today we can see some vestiges of the workshop practice in the windows of shops in back alleys where painters have set up shop. That is why studying these works first hand in the galleries of our museums or in the piazzas and churches of Italy can provide a direct link to the triumph realism, which the renaissance exemplified. The entire credo and ethos of the renaissance was to bring back the accomplishments and skill of the ancients that had been lost in intervening centuries.
I am reading a fascinating book on the renaissance that was just published, titled, “Virtue Politics” by James Hankins, with a subtitle of- Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy. Any new work about this period serves as beacon to me as I’ve been fascinated by this period for years. This book elucidates just how far-reaching and bold the ambitions of the humanist thinkers and artists of the renaissance were. So when we see exhibits like this one at the NGA we take in the entire ethos and aspirations of the era. There’s a term the author uses that sums up the credo of the time, which also informs these paintings and sculptures. “Paideuma” is the name for this pervasive attitude, which is unpacked for us by Hankins. He explains that paideuma refers to the mission in the Renaissance to lift up the moral attitudes and behaviors of society, especially the leaders. Many of the leaders, both secular and religious had failed miserably- perhaps exemplified by Pope Boniface in Dante’s time- who is consigned to hell by the poet in his Divine Comedy. The act of selling indulgences by Pope Julius probably only confirmed the distrust. Feckless mercenaries like, Cesare di Borgia, whose cruelty and malice was well beyond the pale- will temper our tendency to think of the era as too golden.
There are many examples however of the opposite, which is to say, men of virtue and courage who embraced the desire for wisdom and held soulcraft as an essential aspiration. One of these men was Lorenzo the Magnificent, and his terracotta bust by Verrocchio in this show captures something of his character and his determination.
We usually think of the renaissance in terms of artistic and scientific growth as with art of unparalleled virtuosity or with Leonardo’s solitary pursuits of inventions, anatomical studies or even urban planning. So this idea of the goal to alter the hearts and minds of society for the better is usually not part of the picture.
The tendency to wax poetic for this golden era of the flowering of science, arts, literature, music and virtue in general is undeniable. With our current era of rampant materialism and venality it is easy to look to more enlightened societies. Hankins explains about oligarchy being the rule of the many by the wealthy few, but more often than not, by those without virtue.
So as we tour amazing exhibits like this we can be thankful for our institutions that brings us the history and marvelous works of former ages. While contemplating these works and the individuals who made them we can reflect and be enriched and perhaps improved or inspired to do better. Increasing our humanity and enabling or even ennobling our spirits could very well be part of the benefits of shows like this at the NGA. Many thanks to Andrew Butterfield the curator of the Verrocchio exhibit and appreciation for our American museums for bringing us such treasures.